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What we learned from Pitt, Part One: Defense

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After being relegated to radio listener for the first five games of the year, I sat down in front of the TV on Saturday with great anticipation. Not only would I get to see these Cougs for the first time, I’d get to see them against top-flight competition – the kind that lets you know exactly where your team is at after mowing through five overmatched opponents.

And now, we know.

Against such stiff opposition – with apologies to Gonzaga and UCLA, Pitt could very well end up being the best team we face all year long – a good news/bad news theme emerged.

The good news? This team is every bit as good defensively as the numbers suggested it was after five games.

Coming into the game against Pitt, I proclaimed this the most dominant defense in the country. The Cougs had allowed more than 75 defensive efficiency (what's efficiency?) just once, and even that game was a bit of an anomaly, as Sacramento State achieved a 96.8 almost exclusively thanks to exceptional shooting. Very little happened on Saturday to change my mind. Though the Cougs gave up a 97.7 efficiency to the Panthers – thanks almost exclusively to Pitt’s low turnover and high free throw rates – there were a lot of things to like about Saturday’s defensive performance.

In the first half, when Taylor Rochestie and the rest of his teammates were turning the ball over about one out of every three times up the floor (10 turnovers in roughly 30 possessions), the Cougs ended the first 20 minutes down just three points. They had done an exceptional job of frustrating the immensely talented and experienced Panthers, keeping them away from the basket and forcing them to settle for contested jump shots – not Pitt’s strength.

Think about that: WSU, the team that all the pundits expected to sink back to the bottom half of the Pac-10, hung with the No. 4 team in the country while playing its worst offensive half of the season. That, my friends, is not small.

Of course, things changed in the second half as Pitt decided to get more aggressive to the basket and play to its strengths – as good teams eventually do – but I had already seen enough to know that this defense is something special. Led by the more experienced players, it’s exceptionally disciplined as past defenses have been. But because of the newcomers, it’s versatile in a way that past units were not. The additions of Klay Thompson, Marcus Capers and DeAngelo Casto give Tony Bennett a way to match up athletically with opponents that he couldn’t before.

There were two perfect examples in the second half. With Nikola Koprivica drawing the primary defensive assignment, Sam Young had been absolutely killing the Cougs. But midway through the second half, Bennett switched Casto onto Young. Casto’s length and quickness limited Young’s impact on the game thereafter. But that wasn’t the only example. Remember that little 6-0 run that gave us just a glimmer of hope late in the second half? Done with Casto, Thompson and Capers all on the floor, picking up three consecutive stops.

Now, certainly not all was perfect on Saturday night. The Cougs gave up far too many free throws in the second half, something that’s a little disconcerting, given the fact that both Mississippi State and Pitt both had absurd FT rates of 50 or greater. Since I didn’t see the MSU game, I can’t speak to whether that’s indicative of a fundamental problem. For now, I'll chalk up Pitt’s ridiculous 56.3 FT rate to the Panthers just being darn good, as they have exceeded 40 FT rate (which is very, very good) in each of their last three games. Those FT rates will bear watching, however, especially with Baylor and Gonzaga coming to town in the next week and a half.

But despite that, there is plenty – and I mean plenty – to be encouraged about. Just one team has exceeded 40 eFG% (the aforementioned Sacramento State) against the Cougs, and that includes limiting MSU and Pitt to 39.1 and 38.5 respectively. Effective field goal percentage has always been the greatest indicator of how well a Bennett defense is playing, and in five out of six outings, the WSU has held their opposition to a subpar shooting night. Additionally, the Cougs have done a great job of generating turnovers: Pitt – an experienced, disciplined team – broke a string of four straight opponents exceeding 25 turnover rate. These are great signs.

Is this defense for real? I think so, but Baylor and Gonzaga will tell us more, as both could give us trouble for the same reasons Pitt did. The Bears and Zags have both been great at getting to the free throw line, and if both are able to do so against the Cougs, that could mean this is a bigger problem for the defense than I’m giving it credit for at the moment. Both also take great care of the basketball, so we'll see what kind of impact that has on the overall effectiveness of the defense. But, looking forward, we have a lot to be excited about.

I’ll be back later this afternoon with something not so exciting: The bad news – that ugly, ugly offense.