ORLANDO, Fla. — Pitt is a low turnover team, traditionally, and the Panthers pride themselves on taking care of the basketball and making good passes and good decisions.
In their 77-48 victory Thursday against Colorado, the Panthers had only three turnovers, and they average just 10.6 per game.
That ability to protect the ball might be the key to the Panthers’ chances to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009. They will have to handle full-court pressure in their NCAA tournament third-round game in order win.
No. 9 seed Pitt (26-9) will play against No. 1 seed Florida (33-2) today at Amway Center, and the key matchup likely will be Pitt’s offense against Florida’s press.
“I think so,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said about handling the pressure. “But there are going to be a lot of big parts, we’ve also got to outrebound them. We’ve got to take care of the ball against the press. We certainly don’t want to turn it over.
“Coming off a three-turnover game, you feel like you’re pretty good at taking care of the ball, but you can’t expect to have only three turnovers in every game. We’ve got to take care of the ball.”
Dixon said Pitt hasn’t seen a lot of pressure this season because most ACC teams don’t use it. But the Panthers did see some at the end of a few games when they had a lead.
One game that comes to mind is the Panthers’ 80-75 victory against North Carolina in an ACC tournament quarterfinals. The Tar Heels slapped the press on Pitt and turned a 20-point deficit into a 3-point deficit in a matter of minutes.
Pitt turned over the ball 15 times in that game and most came down the stretch. But James Robinson cautions anyone trying to read too much into that game as a measure of the ability to handle pressure.
For one thing, the Panthers will be prepared for the Gators press because it is one of their primary defenses. Secondly, the press the Tar Heels used was out of desperation.
“That North Carolina game was different, their backs were against the wall and they were just gambling and taking more chances than they usually would,” Robinson said. “That is the difference … Florida will press but they aren’t going to gamble as much as a team would at the end of the game.”
Lamar Patterson added: “We just have to be patient and be smart with the ball and, at the same time, we need to attack it. We have a lot of guys in here who can handle the ball — me, Cam [Wright], James, Josh [Newkirk] — we all can handle the ball and pass it well and our bigs can dribble and pass as well.
“So when you have all that going on, it makes us pretty hard to press and have success. North Carolina was down big and it was desperation time for them, but Florida’s press is more to speed you up as opposed to turn you over.”
Patterson does make a great point about the Gators’ pressure. That is what makes what the Gators do different than what teams that Pitt has faced in the past, such as Louisville, which runs a lot of traps and tries to force turnovers.
Florida wants to speed teams up but also make them work hard to get the ball across the half-court line and shorten their shot-clock time.
That’s why, as Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin explains, the Gators press can be effective even if it doesn’t generate a single turnover. “We try to let our defense create some offense for us, but if the other team does a good job of taking care of the ball, there’s not too much of that,” he said. “Our motto is to try to wear teams down with the press and eventually grind them down with our depth and just the pressure that we put on them.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan said that Pitt is such a good passing team he doesn’t expect the Gators to be able to turn them over much.
He also said the Gators use a variety of presses and defenses, so the ability to mix and match them and change them within the context of a game also makes it difficult for opponents.
“Pittsburgh is an outstanding passing team,” Donovan said. “But [pressure] is disruptive, it is something you have to deal with every single possession. I think there’s other things you can get out of the press. It’s our style of play. It’s kind of what we do.
“There are times we change and don’t trap as much. We play full-court, man-to-man and sometimes we pick up [zone]. Pressing for us is a part of it. Ideally, yeah, you’d want to turn teams over a lot but if you don’t, for us, we’re getting nine players in the game.
“Pittsburgh does a terrific job attacking the press. They’re going to try and attack to score, so our rotations and what we do in our press will be really important.”
Patterson said that the key for the Panthers will be to attack the press and look to score.
“We have to be patient, yet aggressive,” Patterson said. “If we break the pressure and they are giving us the bucket, we need to go get it. If they don’t we need to be smart enough to pull it out and run our offense. It really is a matter of just taking what is there and being smart and not letting them dictate how fast we’re going to play.”
Dixon said that he is impressed by how disciplined the Gators are in their presses and how few mistakes they make. He said it can become difficult to handle pressure if you let a pressing team get some momentum with a run of steals and transition layups, but he is confident in his team’s passing ability and decision-making.
“We’ve got to hurt them on the back end,” Dixon said. “If they are going to press, we want to get baskets at the back end of it and Albany [Florida’s second-round opponent] did that a little bit early. I don’t know that we saw a lot of [pressure] in the ACC, but I feel like we’re well prepared for it.”
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.