Thursday, December 14, 2006

Game of the Week: #2 Pittsburgh at #7 Wisconsin

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Game of the Week: #2 Pittsburgh at #7 Wisconsin (Saturday, December 16th, 12:00 PM, ESPN)

Has there ever been a season in which there has been this many top-notch non-conference games before Christmas? So far this year, we have already had North Carolina-Ohio State, Kansas-Florida, Texas A&M-UCLA, Wichita State-LSU, Washington-Gonzaga—you get the idea. Nearly every week, one can sit down several nights a week and find a quality match-up to watch. This weekend is no different. Purdue takes on Butler in a surprising Midwest showdown, Kentucky and Louisville partake in their annual rivalry game, Gonzaga heads to Georgia to face a talented Bulldogs squad, among other solid battles. However, the top game of the weekend will pit two Top-10 teams when Pittsburgh goes on the road to play Wisconsin. Expect a physical game between two teams that have great offense-defense balance.

Pittsburgh had a disappointing finish to last season, falling in the second round to 13th-seeded Bradley. However, they returned everyone of note except Carl Krauser, and have been one of the best teams in the country thus far. The Panthers stand at 10-0, with their best wins over Massachusetts and Florida State. They struggled in a couple of their victories, though, including their last game at Buffalo, when they came back to win by three. Pitt averages just over 75 points per game, and only gives up 60 per contest. Ken Pomeroy has the Panthers as the 9th-most efficient offensive team in the country, and the 105th-most efficient defensive team.

Wisconsin also didn’t finish strong last year, collapsing down the stretch and getting blown out by Arizona in the first round. With the return of nearly everyone, though, they have looked outstanding at times this year. The Badgers are 9-1, the lone loss on a neutral court against Missouri State. Since then, they have defeated Florida State, Winthrop, and Marquette, the latter contest on the road. Wisconsin is putting up more points than usual, averaging 76 a contest, while allowing just over 60 per game. According to Ken Pomeroy, the Badgers have the 17th-most efficient offense and the 63rd-most efficient defense.

Pittsburgh was the Big East favorite coming into the season, and they have not disappointed so far. They are looking much better than any other Big East squad, although their #2 ranking might be a little high for the Panthers at this point. Pitt can score from a variety of positions on the court, and they have plenty of depth to throw different combinations at opponents. Their offensive is much improved from last season, while their defense is still solid. The Panthers are a potential Final Four contender.

The frontcourt starts with All-American candidate Aaron Gray. The 7-foot center is one of the best big men in the country and is having an even better season than last year. He is an excellent rebounder and efficient scorer who is a solid passer and shooter. Gray has double-doubles in all but three games this season, and he is doing an excellent job of staying out of foul trouble. Levon Kendall starts next to Gray. The 6-10 senior is an inside-outside scorer who can do a little bit of everything on the court. He can score, rebound, and play solid defense. Moreover, Kendall is a very good passer and does not turn the ball over much. Sam Young has a lot of potential up front, but he has been hampered all season long by a knee injury. He is a match-up problem because of his athleticism and scoring ability. Young loves to get out in the open court for transition dunks. Tyrell Biggs also provides depth down low. He is an efficient scorer who makes the most of his time on the court. He can also rebound well.

The perimeter group is deep and talented. The main difference between last year’s team and this year’s squad is the ability of Pitt’s wings to score points. They struggled to do that on a consistent basis last year, but they have been much better this season. Mike Cook is a main reason for that. The East Carolina transfer is second on the team in points. He is tough to stop when driving to the basket, and is also a solid rebounder and a capable passer. He had 9 assists in a game earlier this season. Antonio Graves is also a double-figure scorer on the perimeter. While it seems like he has been at Pitt forever, Graves is starting to step up as a senior. He is also a very good defender who can shoot the three efficiently. Levance Fields runs the point. He has done an excellent job of stepping into the starting role after the loss of Carl Krauser. He is not much of a scorer this season, but he is an excellent playmaker who creates for his teammates. He is a crafty offensive player who takes care of the ball well. Fields is also a solid rebounder. Sixth man Ronald Ramon is a former starter who has provided Pitt with outstanding long-range shooting and good bench play. He does not make many mistakes and does a little bit of everything. Wing Keith Benjamin also provides depth for the Panthers. He has athleticism and is a decent three-point shooter. He has improved his scoring this season, but the rest of his numbers have gone down.

Wisconsin was somewhat overshadowed in the Big Ten heading into the season by Ohio State and their influx of talented freshmen. That has continued into the season, especially with the recent debut of Buckeyes center Greg Oden. I still think that the Badgers are going to win the Big Ten title, edging OSU. Wisconsin is not an explosive offensive team, but they have several options and are a disciplined, well-coached team. Their stingy defense reflects that, as well. Look for them to be a high seed come March.

Alando Tucker is clearly the go-to-guy on this team. Tucker is one of the best scoring forwards in the country and could be the most versatile scorer in all of college basketball. He's not an outstanding shooter but he has excellent body control and creates mismatches with his size and scoring ability. He can take over a game at any time, and is also a decent rebounder and passer. Joining Tucker up front is former McDonald’s All-America Brian Butch. He has yet to live up to the hype he had coming out of high school, but he has developed into a solid post player. He is capable of getting a double-double on a given night, but is more of a 10-point, 6-rebound-type of player. Jason Chappell rounds out the starting trio. He is a good role player who provides good rebounding and defense. He does not play many minutes, but can do a little of everything down low. Marcus Landry is an intriguing player up front. He is very athletic and can score in a variety of ways. He has shown flashes of excellence throughout his short career with the Badgers, and is coming off of an 11-point, 4-rebound, 4-block performance against Marquette. Wing Jason Krabbenhoft is another solid player in the frontcourt. The 6-7 sixth man is a very good shooter who is also the team’s leading rebounder. Greg Stiemsma averages under ten minutes per game, but is a serviceable role player in the paint.

The backcourt is led by Kammron Taylor. He can play both guard spots, and is the team’s best perimeter score. Taylor is a very good three-point shooter who can get hot from behind the arc. He is also a decent defender and a good passer. He needs to develop more consistency, though. Taylor is the team’s second option behind Tucker, but he is just as prone to scoring 17 points as he is to scoring 5. Michael Flowers lines up next to Taylor in the backcourt. He contributes in nearly every way for the Badgers, and might be the best defender on the team. He can score (21 points vs. Winthrop), rebound (6 boards vs. Marquette), pass (6 assists vs. Missouri State), and get in the passing lanes (5 steals vs. Southern). He is a very underrated player in terms of what he does for Wisconsin. Off the bench are two quality freshmen. Jason Bohannon did not play against Marquette, but is potentially a very good scorer. He can put up points in a variety of ways, and can also shoot well. Trevon Hughes is extremely quick backing up at the point guard spot. He can get into the lane against most people and create opportunities.

This game should be an outstanding match-up between two of the best teams in the country. Both teams like to play a half-court game with transition baskets coming only when the opportunity presents itself. Moreover, two of the best players in the country will be on the court Saturday, in Wisconsin’s Alando Tucker and Pittsburgh’s Aaron Gray. The keys for Wisconsin to win will be to take advantage of Tucker’s match-up. He will likely be defended by Mike Cook, who is not strong enough to guard Tucker—although most people aren’t. If the Badgers can constantly get the ball to Tucker in positions to score, they will immediately have an advantage. Moreover, they need someone besides Tucker to step up. Kammron Taylor has shown the ability on several occasions to be a second scorer, but he has also been extremely inconsistent this season. Marcus Landry or Joe Krabbenhoft could potentially help off the bench, while Michael Flowers is also capable of scoring. Brian Butch might be the most important player for Wisconsin on Saturday. In addition to defending Gray on the inside, he is going to have to provide post scoring for the Badgers. If he lets Gray dominate the interior on both ends, that could spell trouble for Wisconsin. On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh also needs to take advantage of their mismatches. Aaron Gray needs to control the paint. Brian Butch nor Jason Chappell nor Greg Stiemsma can defend Gray one-on-one, so he could be poised for a huge day. Additionally, the Panthers need to find a way to stop Alando Tucker. Mike Cook, as mentioned before, is not strong enough, while Levon Kendall is not quick enough. The ideal person could be Sam Young, but he has been hampered by a knee injury all season, and won’t be healthy enough to pose much of a challenge. If Tucker gets his points, Pitt has to stop the complementary scorers from going off. Antonio Graves and Levance Fields have to keep an eye on Michael Flowers and Kammron Taylor—not allowing them to get 20-plus points like they are both capable of. The point guard match-up will also be a battle to watch. Levance Fields has been one of the best lead guards in the country this season, but he has struggled scoring the ball. If Michael Flowers can slow down Fields, and not let him get the Pitt offense going, the Panthers are going to struggle against Wisconsin’s stout defense. In the end, I think Wisconsin’s home-court advantage, in addition to the fact that no one on Pitt can stop Alando Tucker, will give the Badgers the victory.

Prediction: Wisconsin 66, Pittsburgh 62

Prediction Record: 2-1

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