By Paul Ladewski_
Why the Panthers will reach the Final Four and beyond
* Baracketology – No less a hoops expert than Barack Obama has the Panthers headed to Ford Field in Detroit next month. You see, a Final Four berth isn’t a dream. It’s a presidential edict.
* Depth – Because of fatigue, injuries and foul trouble, numbers become more a factor as the tournament progresses. This Pitt team is eight deep, as forward Gilbert Brown and guards Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker have shown the ability to step up whenever necessary.
* Law of averages – The Panthers have averaged 26 regular-season victories per year in the Jamie Dixon era, but they have never advanced past the Sweet 16 in the tournament. Eventually, the basketball gods will smile on a team that has been this good, this long, right?
* Physical presence – In underrated Tyrell Biggs and co-Big East Player of the Year DeJuan Blair, the Panthers boast the best inside combination at both ends of the floor in the tournament. (Sorry, Hasheem Thabeet, but you’re a DeJuannabe on offense.) As a team, their plus-9.9 rebound margin was second only to Michigan State in the country.
* Star power – In recent years, Pitt was built for the regular-season grind, a team whose sum exceeded its parts to some degree. Well, not any more. In Blair and Sam Young, the Panthers have two potential NBA first-round draft picks. And Blair could be their first lottery pick since Charles Smith two decades ago. History indicates that a dominant talent can take a team a long way in the NCAAs, and the Panthers have not one but two of them.
And five reasons why it won’t
* Foul trouble – If the Panthers fail to live up to the hype, then this is likely to be the reason for it. Blair is the most difficult big man to officiate since Shaquille O’Neal in is prime, which means the referees figure to have much to say about the outcome. Pure and simple, he can’t be on the bench against a quality opponent in a close game. (See Cardinals, Louisville.)
* Guard play – Face it, college basketball is about the backcourt more than anything. Floor leader Levance Fields does a lot of things well, but he doesn‚Äôt possess outrageous athleticism. Ditto Jermaine Dixon. By now, it’s no secret that this team can be beaten off the dribble.
* Free throws. In their biggest game of the season, the Panthers drained 17-of-20 free-throw attempts against Connecticut on the road, but don’t expect a repeat performance any time soon. Overall, they converted at 67.4 percent clip, which ranked 223rd in the country. In a close game, this could be the difference between advancement and elimination.
* Location, location, location – The Panthers got the No. 1 seed that they wanted all along, but they could have picked a better place to be than the East Regional, which might be the toughest of them all. They face a potentially difficult match-up against Oklahoma State. UCLA and Villanova lurk in the regional championship game.
(Wouldn’t you love to see a pupil-mentor showdown between Dixon and UCLA head coach Ben Howland with a Final Four berth at stake?)
* Perimeter game – Expect opponents to collapse on Blair in the middle and force his teammates to beat them at the perimeter, which is not a Pitt strength. The Panthers connected on 33.6 percent of their three-point tries, which ranked 133rd in the country. Of the three players who attempted more than 75 three-balls per game — Dixon, Fields and Young — none hit at better than a 35 percent rate.
Warning: UCLA and Oklahoma State among the leaders in three-point field goal percentage in the country.
Special commentary from award winning sports writer Paul Ladewski. Paul can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org