Remember the unsightly Pitt offense from early in the season a year ago? You know, the one that scored 15 points in the first half of a December game against New Hampshire. The same one that a few days later that made an Indiana team that eventually finished ninth in the Big Ten Conference look like the 1976 Hoosiers. And the one that needed two overtime periods to score a 67 points against Duquesne.
There were a lot of reasons for the Panthers' surprising 25-win season a year ago, but a high-scoring offense was not one of them. The Panthers did not break the 80-point plateau until the 14th game of the season against Syracuse and only scored 80 or more on four more occasions the rest of the season, including two games when they needed overtime(s) to do it.
Early this season, with pretty much the same cast of players, Pitt's offense has been much more prolific. The Panthers already have scored 80 or more six times in the first nine games, and the team that was 12th among 16 teams in scoring offense in the Big East Conference last season (68.7 ppg) ranks second this season with a gaudy 82.8 points per game.
What was a giant question entering the season has been of the team's strength through the first quarter of the schedule. The only team in the conference that is scoring more points is Louisville. The Panthers rank 16th in NCAA Division I in scoring offense.
The evolution of the offense has underscored a change in the way the Panthers go about winning.
Defense used to be the team's calling card. Last season, the Panthers were first in the Big East in scoring defense (61.8 ppg), second in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (31.4) and third in field-goal percentage defense (40.0). This season, they rank seventh, 12th and 12th in the Big East in those same three statistical categories.
Point guard Travon Woodall said the game plan has not changed all that much. Defense still comes first, but there is definitely a different mindset among the players when it comes to playing offense.
"I think last year we didn't really know as a team who we were," Woodall said. "We didn't have an identity until the end of the season. So we wanted to stop people. That was our goal because we didn't know how many points we'd be able to score. Now, we know we have guys who will produce points. It's kind of the same mindset. We want to get defensive stops, but we know we're going to get points on the offensive end."
Senior Gilbert Brown, the team's third-leading scorer, believes the best is yet to come for the offense. Brown has the ability to be an explosive offensive player, but he hasn't hit his stride yet. Other players are off to slow starts as well.
"We haven't even scratched the surface," Brown said. "We're not even near where we should be. That's one of the biggest things coach is stressing. I definitely see in the near future, around conference play, that we should be stepping up another level. I think you'll see a lot of good performances out of a lot of players because we're all continuing to get better."
For the time being, the reserves are doing their best to boost the scoring production. Woodall is part of a versatile and talented bench.
Coach Jamie Dixon has a unique situation on his hands. His reserves at several positions are better offensive players than the players who start in front of them. That has produced a different dynamic in games.
The reserves are not in the game to protect leads. More often than not they are helping the Panthers extend leads. Three of Pitt's top six scorers are reserves. Backup center Dante Taylor is fourth on the team in scoring, backup power forward Nasir Robinson is fifth and Woodall is sixth.
"I think coach Dixon keeping Nasir coming off the bench, that's helping," Woodall said. "We're all sparks coming off the bench. The starters are doing their job, and at the same time you have more guys who can contribute a lot more. We have guys who can be starters coming off the bench. Nas basically is a starter. Then you have myself and Dante. We're all trying to play aggressive. With me pushing the ball, it's making it a faster-paced game, so we're scoring more."
The team that advanced to the Elite Eight two years ago was a prolific offensive team that averaged 77.8 points over a full season. It remains to be seen whether this team can maintain its current pace, but Brown said the formula for success will not change.
"At at the end of the day we know what wins championships, and that's defense," he said. "But if we can be a high-powered offensive team, that can be just as effective as our defense as well."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.