Monday, February 7, 2011

Important week for Pitt will happen without their most important player

The middle of the Big East is a dog fight.

The three teams currently tied for second place in the conference standings -- Notre Dame, Louisville, and Villanova -- own a two game lead over Cincinnati, Marquette, and St. John's, who currently sit tied for ninth. In other words, there are 10 teams within two games of second place in the league.

That's a lot of teams and will make for an exciting finish to the season -- all ten of those teams still have NCAA Tournament aspirations.

While the middle of the Big East is a mess, Pitt has begun to pull away at the top of the league.

The Panthers have opened up a two game lead over the rest of the Big East, and barring something crazy happening, it seemed like the Panthers simply had to slip it into cruise control to win the Big East regular season.

Well, something crazy happened. Namely, Ashton Gibbs strained his mcl. He's out for tonight's rivalry matchup at West Virginia and is very questionable for Saturday's trip to Philly to take on Nova. Pitt hasn't released a statement on his timetable, but the general consensus is that Gibbs could miss 10-14 days.

Which makes the coming week incredibly important for Pitt. And for West Virginia and Villanova.

If Pitt's lead is going to be cut into, now is the chance. Gibbs is the Panther's leading scorer. He's also one of the best three-point shooters in the country. Pitt may be the second most efficient offensive team in the country, but its not because they have a roster full of future NBA all-stars. Quite the opposite, actually. Pitt is so efficient because they are so good at getting to the offensive glass. Extra shots and second chance points only helps efficiency numbers.

Gibbs is a valuable piece for the Panthers because of his ability to score and the fact that he can have an offense run for him. He is one of the few players on the Pitt roster capable of creating his own shot. Gibbs doesn't do it in one-on-one situations, but there may not be a better player in the country at running off of a screen than Gibbs.

Therein lies the issue for Pitt.

Will they be able to go on the road and knock off two good teams and conference rivals when they are missing their best offensive weapon? Pitt is one of the best programs in the country. They are as deep as anyone this season, and may be the one team that is capable of withstanding the loss of a star player. Travon Woodall, who will likely slide into the starting role in the back court alongside Brad Wanamaker, is probably good enough to start at the point for a number of Big East teams, although he's not quite as good offensively as Gibbs. He will also be the only true point guard available for Jamie Dixon. Brad Wanamaker is a playmaker, but he's not a natural point guard. (Ashton Gibbs isn't either, but that is another post for another day.) Also expect JJ Moore and Lamar Patterson to see increased minutes on the perimeter.

If they can win two games this week, we might as well crown the Panthers Big East regular seasons champs on Sunday.

But if the Mountaineers and the Wildcats can both manage to knock off the Panthers, that means that there could feasibly be 11 teams within two games of first place in the Big East.

That, my friends, is the definition of a mess.

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