Pitt's tighter defense provides huge lift

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The 2003-04 Pitt team rewrote the school record books when it held opponents to 56.4 points per game. That was the first season for Jamie Dixon after he took over for Ben Howland, and the Panthers won the Big East regular-season championship and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

It wasn't always pretty, but the Panthers found ways to win 31 games and only lost five times.

Over the past month, after a 0-2 start to the Big East schedule, this Pitt team is starting to look a lot like the first one Dixon coached. The Panthers have won seven of their past nine, and they're doing it in turn-back-the-clock fashion.

The bruising, no-frills style is back for the Panthers, who have stifled opponents on the defensive end and dominated the boards in recent weeks.

Next game

Game: No. 23 Pitt (19-5, 7-4 Big East) at No. 17 Cincinnati (18-4, 6-3), Fifth/Third Arena, Cincinnati.

When: 6 p.m. Saturday.


"When we haven't rebounded, we haven't won," Dixon said. "That seems to be the constant. We understand that, but we kind of knew that beforehand. That's something we were preaching.

"The rebounding has improved, there's no question about. But our defense has improved, too. Those go hand-in-hand to some degree. We have to win with that. This was a perfect example of that."

This was the 56-46 home victory Monday night against Seton Hall when the Panthers won despite a poor offensive performance, shooting a season-low 34 percent. They made up for the inept offense by holding the Pirates to 33 percent shooting and a season-low 46 points.

Forcing season-low point totals has become a trend for the Panthers, who have held 10 opponents to 50 points or fewer. Three of those strong defensive showings have come in the past nine games. In addition to the Seton Hall performance, the Panthers held Georgetown to 45 points and Villanova to 43.

The Panthers have been playing so well defensively that they are threatening to break the 2003-04 scoring defense record. Through 24 games, the Panthers are allowing 54.5 points per game.

No one has suggested that this team is the defensive equal of the 2003-04 squad. The 2008 NCAA rule change that moved the 3-point line back from 19 feet 9 inches to 20 feet 9 has changed the game. Teams are playing more zone defense, which limits offensive possessions and therefore holds scoring down. At least, that's Dixon theory.

Still, the 54.5 average is good enough to rank fifth in NCAA Division I this season, and it's considerably better than the previous four seasons that also were played with the deeper 3-point line. The 2008-09 Pitt team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight allowed 64.4 points per game. In 2009-10, they allowed 61.8 and 61.0 the following season when they won the Big East regular-season championship and again earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Last season, when the Panthers stumbled to a 5-13 Big East record, they allowed 65.5 points per game, the highest average since 1999-2000.

The attention to detail on defense has been a significant part of the turnaround. Since giving up 74 points in a home loss to Marquette, Pitt (19-5, 7-4) has not allowed more than 64 points in any of the past seven games.

In the past three home games, Pitt held DePaul to 28 percent shooting, Syracuse to 37 percent and Seton Hall to 33 percent.

"I think guys are a lot more committed defensively," senior guard Tray Woodall said. "The other big change is our rebounding. We're trying to outrebound teams. It's no coincidence that the games we outrebounded teams we came out with the win."

Pitt was outrebounded in each of its first three Big East losses to Cincinnati, Rutgers and Marquette. The Bearcats and Golden Eagles had five more rebounds and the Scarlet Knights 12. Since then, the Panthers have outrebounded teams by nearly 11 per game.

The defensive prowess has been important because the offense has come and gone throughout the season. The Panthers shot 37 percent and won at Villanova by 15 points last month. That's even more impressive than beating a team by 10 while shooting 34 percent, as the Panthers did against Seton Hall.

"You have to find different ways," Dixon said. "You're not going to win every game the same way. It's not going to be how you draw it up."

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Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published February 6, 2013 5:00 AM


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