Thursday, November 17, 2011

Breaking Down: Pitt's defensive breakdowns

In the biggest upset of this young season, Long Beach State went into the Peterson Events Center and just beat down the Panthers. The final score was 86-76, but this wasn't like the 49ers hit a couple of free throws late in the game to extend the lead. LBSU went up eight minutes into the game and never relinquished the lead. They took their first double digit lead late in the first half and Pitt was never able to get closer than six the rest of the way.

We wrote an extended piece on the game here, but when you combine Pitt's performance on Wednesday night with their struggles against Rider over the weekend, it got me thinking: what is wrong with the Panthers? Why is Pitt, a team that many people believe has a chance to make the Final Four and will compete for the Big East title, struggling so much early in the season? Are these problems something that is fixable?

In a word: yes.

Pitt's biggest issue right now is defensive discipline. While the Panthers have a reputation for being a great defensive team, that is more the result of their roster makeup -- strong, physical bigs -- and their style of play -- slow-paced and aggressive on the offensive glass -- than anything else. In the Jamie Dixon era, Pitt has been a team that stays at home defensively, playing a helping man-to-man that emphasizes contesting jumpers without gambling on steals or forcing many turnovers. In other words, Pitt's goal on a possession is to take you out of your set, force you into a tough shot and to secure the rebound.

Pitt had two major issues against LBSU. The biggest problem was the Panther's transition defense. Long Beach consistently got run-outs and easy layups, scoring 25 transition. Defensive balance was a problem on a number of occasions. Here, LBSU is in a 1-2-2 zone. Freshman John Johnson shoots a three from the corner at the end of the shot clock. When the ball is in the air, Johnson watches the shot from the corner while the three Pitt bigs crash the offensive glass:

The rebound goes over the head of the Pitt bigs, and Casper Ware scoops up the ball on the run. With four Panthers on the baseline and trailing the play, LBSU has a 3-on-1 break, which ends with Ware finding Ennis for a layup:

Johnson either needs to rotate back out to the top after taking that three from the corner, or JJ Moore, who is on the opposite wing, cannot go to the glass:

Earlier in the first half, we had this debacle. Khem Birch tries to drive through the lane but turns the ball over. LBSU pushes the ball the other way, but Pitt actually gets four players back in transition. The problem is they don't locate the open man. Moore runs at Ware here, while Johnson has already set up at the top of the key to stop the ball:

Ware slings the ball to Michael Caffey on the wing. Gibbs has to run at the open Caffey, who finds Ennis wide open in the corner while three Pitt players stand around in the paint. Ennis had already buried a three in the game:

That's the result of a lack of discipline and communication by Pitt:

On this next play, you'll see an example of the breakdowns Pitt had in their half court defense early in the second half that forced them to go to a 2-3 zone. Gibbs trails Larry Anderson on a double screen, but doesn't follow him tight enough. Anderson curls off of the screen and gets himself open:

Nasir Robinson steps up to help, but he retreats to his man before Gibbs has recovered. Anderson drives towards the rim and both Robinson and Dante Taylor, who has lost track of Ennis, step up to try and take a charge:

Anderson is able to jump-stop and dump the ball down to Ennis for a dunk:

There is no question that Pitt had breakdowns defensively. They gave up 1.32 PPP, something that you rarely see even just an above-average defensive team like the Panthers do, especially playing in the Peterson Events Center. And while this post is looking at Pitt's defense, it very well could have been lauding LBSU's offensive game plan and execution. At some point, you just have to credit the 49ers for making shots and making plays:

That was filthy, but not as filthy as the smirk Ware gave after he made the shot.

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