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Game Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

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Two incredibly similar teams are gearing up for a showdown in Assembly Hall.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

GAME INFO:

Who? Pittsburgh Panthers (4-2, #37 KenPom) at Indiana Hoosiers (5-1, #63 KenPom)

When? 7:00 PM, ESPN2

Vegas? INDIANA -2.5

Pomeroy? INDIANA by 2, 58% chance of victory

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A Challenging Defensive Challenge

Looking to do their part in the ACC / B1G challenge, Indiana is hosting Pitt in the annual event and looking to get back on track after a week that saw them lose to a good low-major in Eastern Washington and having to fend off a bad UNC Greensboro team that whittled a 22-point deficit in the second half to a final margin of 8 points. Both these games and a closer-than-expected game against Lamar have raised even more doubts about this team's ability to defend, especially given their inability to prevent the most overmatched rosters on the schedule from scoring. Their defense is now a horrific 150th in efficiency, which is "average" when looking at the entire Division I landscape but 13th in their conference, besting only Rutgers. Those two squads join Penn State as the only three teams in the conference outside KenPom's top 75 in defense.

That's not good. #analysis

After the loss to Eastern Washington, I claimed that I didn't see these defensive issues as fixable this year, but I think I'm going to back off on that claim for now, because I think they have the potential to be a middling B1G team, defensively, if they can fix the consistency issues plaguing them recently. And a middling defensive team (not D1 middling, but Power 5 middling) with the 16th-ranked offense is going to win a lot of college basketball games. #middling

Yes, Indiana will struggle to protect the rim and the post with their lack of depth in the frontcourt, but there is no excuse for the amount of penetration our embarrassment of riches in the backcourt is allowing. There is too much talent and athleticism in that group to be so incapable of keeping their man in front of them. They've shown the ability to do it on occasion, but it has to happen each and every trip down the floor. This team cannot afford to disengage for any length of time, they simply aren't good enough to win that way. There is no mistake-eraser at the rim this year. Defense starts at the perimeter: if the guards and wings make it difficult to drive and get the ball into the post, it gets easier for Hanner Mosquera-Perea and company to do their job as well.

No, Pitt is not the stiffest test Indiana will face all year, but they're the best team they'll have faced to date, and a defensive effort like any of the last three games will result in a double digit loss. The Panthers, much like SMU, are unanticipatedly missing a couple key pieces with the suspension of Durand Johnson and the injury to senior guard Cameron Wright. Their absences have likely contributed to Pitt's inconsistent start, which includes a big win over #65 Kansas State in Maui and a loss to #194 Hawaii.

Instead, Pitt has been leaning on Michael Young (6'9") and Josh Newkirk (6'1") to carry the load offensively, while James Robinson (6'3") also takes his fair share of shots while also acting as the primary distributor for Jamie Dixon's squad. They are certainly lacking in bona fide talent and experience up front, much like Indiana, but they can put up points in bunches, much like Indiana, as the Panthers possess the 15th most efficient offense in the nation.

Stat-Filled Goodness

According to ShotAnalytics, and much to Indiana's dismay, Pitt is shooting 68% on shots at the rim, which would have been tops in the nation last season. Michael Young, probably the greatest threat in terms of size / talent combo, takes 65% of his shots from that range and with good reason, as he's hitting 86% of them. The Hoosiers will have their work cut out for them to keep him from having a huge night.

As a team, the Panthers hit 3-pointers at an excellent rate (38.8%, 55th) but pick their spots carefully from long distance, as they're 251st in 3PA / FGA this season. Let's see what else the Four Factor preview reveals about them:

Four Factors
eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate
INDIANA (Offense) 59.7% (8th) 17.3% (60th) 35.9% (77th) 46.1% (60th)
PITTSBURGH (Defense) 44.0% (66th) 16.6% (309th) 34.2% (259th) 39.2% (211th)
eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate
INDIANA (Defense) 52.3% (266th) 19.6% (198th) 30.7% (154th) 24.1% (16th)
PITTSBURGH (Offense) 53.6% (52nd) 18.6% (112th) 39.7% (27th) 29.4% (292nd)

Despite a thoroughly average defense overall, Pittsburgh has a great DeFG% that is even better when you isolate their d3P% (24.7%, 20th). Unfortunately, they're inability to cause turnovers, prevent offensive rebounds, and habit of frequently sending people to the free throw line undoes almost all the good they do strictly defending shots. That said, of the six teams they've played, only Kansas State comes remotely close to shooting as well as the Hoosiers do, and they're only 73rd.

Pitt struggles to get to the free throw line on offense as well, and one of Indiana's "finest" defensive attributes has been their ability to keep other teams from the charity stripe. Unfortunately, this is likely more a product of it being very difficult to foul an uncontested shooter than of refined defensive technique. It could behoove the Hoosiers to attempt to score their points at the rim with more emphasis than we've seen this season, due to Pitt's aforementioned absence of frontcourt depth and their willingness to send you to the free throw line, should their perimeter defensive prowess prove to be too much.

Outside the Numbers

The ACC / B1G challenge has always been a lot of fun to watch, in my opinion. Typically these are the two best leagues in the country and the matchups have been superb ever since they finally ditched the random pairings in favor of choosing matchups based on competitiveness, intrigue, etc. When Indiana - Pitt was announced, I thought it made sense for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, because it was a winnable game (given it's at home) against a recognizable opponent.

I explained how Pitt has many of the same strengths, weaknesses, and question marks as the Hoosiers do on the court, which makes it a great matchup from a statistical standpoint. It also plays well from a historical perspective, as Tom Crean and Jamie Dixon have some history dating back to Tom's days at Marquette when both teams were in the Big East.

Furthermore, Jamie Dixon is a guy who has taken Pitt to the NCAA Tournament in ten of his eleven complete seasons, but has only made it to the second weekend three times, which has frustrated some Pitt fans. Likewise, Tom Crean's flameout against Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen with one of the most talented Indiana teams in quite some time has caused some well-documented teeth gnashing in Bloomington, especially when it was paired with last year's horrible campaign. Ben's Crimson Query with the guys over at Cardiac Hill shows a couple different viewpoints of Dixon's tenure at Pitt. I may be alone, but I think both fanbases contain growing factions of fans who are getting frustrated with what they perceive as underachievement by their head coaches.

Basically: this matchup has everything I look for in a basketball game, and I'm excited for it. I hope Assembly Hall is too. There was a time when Assembly Hall was a hostile nightmare for opposing teams in terms of atmosphere but this year attendance has been fairly meh and the atmosphere, in my opinion, losing a little of its luster. Granted, this is certainly a byproduct of a weak November schedule and brewing discontent following a bizarre and tragic offseason, but hopefully the fans can shake that off and come out Tuesday night in midseason form. Treating every opponent like they are top-ranked Michigan is what makes going to Assembly Hall so special.

Three Things to Watch For:

  • Can we continue to value the ball? Indiana's turnover rate has been trending up all season and sits at 60th in the country, which is good enough for 4th best in the B1G. It's imperative, however, with the defense in its current state, that Indiana continue to not hand extra possessions to the opponent. Turnovers often lead to fastbreaks and transition opportunities which are even harder to defend than a more typical half-court set. The turnaround in this area has been fantastic to see and I hope it continues.
  • More minutes for Emmitt Holt? I know I've used this point before but count me among those who thought Holt looked pretty good on Friday night. He didn't score, but he pulled down four offensive rebounds (five total) in just twelve minutes of action. It's obvious Crean doesn't really trust him in tighter situations quite yet, as he vanished in the second half against UNC Greensboro and didn't play at all against Eastern Washington. However, I think he could be part of the cure to what is ailing IU, given his ability and willingness to rebound. The offensive game isn't refined but, much like with HMP, these Hoosiers don't need help in that department. They need size, defense, and rebounding.
  • Are they up to the Michael Young challenge? I touched on it earlier and I'm reinforcing it here: Indiana has show zero capability to handle someone as big and as skilled as Michael Young through six games and now he's coming to Assembly Hall. I imagine it'll be a defense-by-committee with Troy Williams and Hanner Mosquera-Perea drawing him on most possessions, and it'll take an effort previously unseen to hold him in check. I'm not overly optimistic, but I am looking forward to see how long they can hold up, if at all.