Smizik: Better shooting key for Pitt

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All that was missing from the dour postgame analysis and whiny fan criticism of the Pitt basketball team after its loss Monday to Louisville was Chicken Little running through the Cathedral of Learning yelling, "The sky is falling, the sky is falling."

Get a grip, folks. Good basketball teams lose all the time. So do excellent basketball teams. Often, they lose to lesser teams. Defending national champion Florida, with five starters returning, has lost twice. One of those losses was to Florida State, a team Pitt beat by 20 points.

Pitt is fine. It's a very good team, a top-10 team. Anyone who expected the Panthers to finish the season undefeated is delusional. Anyone who believed they were without flaws doesn't understand the sport.

It's true, Pitt is susceptible to quick guards. A lot of teams are. That doesn't mean when facing such teams Pitt is guaranteed defeat. Like all competition, basketball is a game of strengths and weaknesses. No team is without a weakness. One weakness does not necessarily translate into a stream of defeats.

The 66-53 loss to Louisville should be taken for what it is: A minor blip on an otherwise superb season that will have little or no effect remainder of the way.

In 2003, a Pitt team that was 15-1 lost three of its first five February games and doom was predicted. Instead, the Panthers won their next 11, including the Big East Conference tournament championship game against Connecticut, before losing to Marquette in the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament.

That team, by the way, is the best Pitt team of the current era and will be at least until a team advances beyond the round of 16. It was Ben Howland's final season and he had an experienced and talented group. In Brandin Knight, Howland had the best Pitt point guard of this era and an excellent leader. On the wings, Julius Page and Jaron Brown were superior defenders who could score, although neither was anything more than an average shooter. Power forward Donatas Zavackas made 44 percent of his 3-pointers. Ontario Lett and Chevon Troutman were undersized but strong inside players. Carl Krauser and Toree Morris provided depth. Six players averaged between 9.7 and 12.2 points.

Pitt lost not because of its weaknesses but because it ran into a better team. From that Marquette team, there are three players currently earning NBA salaries, including Dwyane Wade, arguably the best player in the world. If Pitt runs into a team that good this season, it will lose again.

Numerous reasons have been cited for the Louisville loss, although the most obvious went almost unnoticed. The most important statistic in basketball is not turnovers, not points in the lane, not assist-to-turnover ratio, not points in transition, not points off the bench but field-goal shooting. It's a game of putting the ball in the basket and Pitt could not do that against Louisville.

The Panthers were 0 for 9 in 3-point shooting and 5 for 21 overall in the first half and consequently fell behind by 17 points. If they shot their normal percentages, 49 from the field, 40 from 3-point range, they would have scored 10 more points in the first half and it would have been a different game.

Count on this, if the Panthers shoot 0 for 9 and 5 for 21 in the first half of any NCAA tournament game, it will make no difference if the opposing guards are lightning quick or painstakingly slow, they will lose.

With a difficult final five games, including road games at Georgetown and Marquette, Pitt could lose at least one more time. It could mean their likely second seed will become a third, which is nothing, or even a fourth, which is slight.

It's all about playing well in the NCAA tournament. Toward that end, Pitt needs to start shooting better. Shooting was supposed to be the one asset that separated this team from others in the past. But over the past five games, here are the 3-point numbers for their best outside shooters: Ronald Ramon, 4-18; Levance Fields, 6-20; Antonio Graves, 4-15.

Small forward Mike Cook, who had shown himself to be a effective scorer, has stalled badly. Since scoring 18 against Georgetown Jan. 13, he's averaging 6.4 points.

All of that needs to improve. If it doesn't, Pitt won't last long in the NCAA tournament. If it does, the Panthers have a chance to get beyond the round of 16.

If that's only as far as they get, the season will not have been a disappointment. Just making the NCAA tournament used to be a big deal at Pitt. Now it's commonplace and expected. That doesn't diminish the accomplishment.

The loss to Louisville could serve as a fresh start for the Panthers -- but only if they begin to shoot better.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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