Clemson is in the middle of a brutal stretch to begin ACC play. After suffering losses to UNC and Louisville, the Tigers travel to Pittsburgh and Virginia before returning home to face Syracuse. It's imperative that Clemson steal one of these five to keep any hope of making the NIT alive and keep the team's confidence up.
Our best shot at a win in this stretch may be on the road at Pittsburgh. Jim Hammett will be on hand Saturday and was kind enough to join us for the Q&A session below. Enjoy and please join us back here during the game.
STS: Shakin the Southland
CH: Cardiac Hill
STS: By their standards, the Pittsburgh Panthers are off to a disappointing start with four losses - including one to Hawaii and another in blowout fashion to NC State. Based on the KenPom statistics, most of Pitt's numbers have regressed from a year ago. One that jumps off the screen is FTA/FGA which is the proportion of free throw attempts to field goals attempts. Last year Pittsburgh was at an outstanding 44.3 (over 44 free throw attempts for every 100 field goal attempts). This year that number has dipped to 33.7 (which is actually below Clemson). Pittsburgh's offense was incredibly efficient averaging 1.148 point per possession last season. This year it's a still solid, but less spectacular 1.062.
So with all that said, what's wrong with Pittsburgh, if anything? Is it simply a rebuilding year after losing Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna? Will they still manage to work their way into the NCAA tournament as is almost always the case?
CH: Pitt certainly misses Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson. The two fifth-year seniors did so much for Pitt last season, it masked a lot of problems on the roster. Pitt also did not bring many quality newcomers, and they are certainly going through some growing pains. Pitt has long benefited from players staying the course and playing four or five years and making vast improvements with each season. Pitt does not have that right now, they only have two seniors and only one of them actually plays. Pitt has remained consistent through the years with guys that fit the program, and not with stud recruits. While I do see some talent on this Pitt roster, I think a lot of their struggles start with the lack of experience.
Making the tournament seems like a long-shot at this point to be honest. Pitt is coming off a nail-biter against lowly Boston College, and as you mentioned they already have some bad losses on the resume. I would not count them totally out of it, but nobody is expecting Pitt to be dancing as it stands right now. I will say if they do put together a run and make it, it would likely be Jamie Dixon's most impressive campaign in his career.
STS: Pittsburgh and Virginia are great references for where Clemson basketball wants to go. Both play a slow, rugged, defensive-minded brand of basketball. How well appreciated is this style among Panther fans? What are some of the keys that Clemson needs to hit on to find more success with this style? For example, I believe our lack of three-point shooters has been a huge drag on the program since adopting this style.
CH: Jamie Dixon's philosophy has worked for a long time, and Virginia is starting to hit their stride with it in recent years as well. I think to play a hard-nosed and as I would call it, a "Big East" style of basketball, you need tough guards that are willing to defend, forwards that are willing to get dirty and rebound like crazy, and a big man in the middle protecting the rim. I just described to you Virginia's starting five basically. I know plenty of ACC teams that like to run and gun, but look at the San Antonio Spurs or the Wisconsin Badgers, and now what Virginia is doing, it just shows you that team basketball with an emphasis on defense can work at a high level.
Truth be told, Pitt has not played that brand of basketball at a high level for a few years. I think part of it was the switch to the ACC and the recruiting has changed somewhat, Pitt has shuffled assistants in recent years, and Dixon has seemed to try to change his ways in a sense. I agree, shooters are essential in playing a grind it out style, because at the end of the shot clock you have a guy penetrating, and somebody needs to be there for a kick out. Part of Pitt's recent struggles have revolved around the lack of knock down shooter. Pitt's last one was Ashton Gibbs, who was a member of the team the last time Pitt was ranked in the top 5 back in 2011. It seems like Clemson, and Pitt both need to find a few guys like that to improve their fortunes.
STS: This is Jamie Dixon's 12th season in Pittsburgh. He's never finished with less than 20 wins, he's reached 30 wins twice, he's made it to the Sweet Sixteen three times, once advancing through to the elite eight. His loyalty and success is in stark contrast to the football program that has had three different head coaches since Dabo Swinney became the head coach of our football program.
Is Dixon a beloved figure in the Steel City? Also, since we're still getting acclimated with each other as conference opponents (won't play in football until 2016), can you give us a little background on your basketball program (e.g., expectations, history). Finally, is Pittsburgh a "basketball school" or is that program just experiencing more success than football?
CH: Jamie Dixon is a good person, and a guy you would want your kid to play for in college. He is certainly well-liked, but he also has some heavy critics. Sure the regular season wins have been great, Pitt is regularly in the top 25, they always make the tournament, they are near the top of their conference annually, but Pitt has had their troubles in March. It has actually been since 2008 since Pitt made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA's. So obviously, Pitt fans like the stability, but as a fan base people would like to see something in the next couple of years. Coincidentally enough, Dixon is going for his 300th career win Saturday against Clemson, he is one of the fastest ever to achieve that mark.
To talk briefly on the program, Pitt kind of got lucky. In their last season of playing at the old gym, Pitt had a special 29 win season under Ben Howland that saw Pitt reach the Sweet 16. From there, Pitt started playing in the Petersen Events Center. It is a beautiful basketball facility that is rivaled by few in the whole country, Howland had one more season before Dixon took the realms and the rest has been history. Pitt has made 12 of the past 13 tournaments, four Sweet 16's, one Elite Eight, and five Big East championships. It has been a remarkable run that basically started out of nowhere, but the expectations have risen quite a bit and many fans and alums expect Pitt to compete at a fairly high level on a yearly basis.
Pitt is not a basketball school, but it is easy to see why it looks that way. Pitt football has an excellent tradition, but they have been through some dark times in the past few years. Pitt basketball certainly carved itself a nice position in the minds of fans, but at the end of the day, I would speculate most fans would rather see some New Year's Day bowls than a Final Four.
STS: Since we're talking about coaching, Pittsburgh football made a splashy hire to replace outgoing Paul Chryst (to Wisconsin) by hiring Michigan State DC Pat Narduzzi. Can you talk a little bit about that hire, the excitement around it, and the potential the program has in the ACC given it's location, facilities, history, etc.
CH: Personally, I really like the Pat Narduzzi hire. I think he is excellent coach, and he fits into this program very well. His style and philosophy can adapt to the personnel in place, and I do not think Pitt has the huge overhaul that normally comes with a new coach and he can hit the ground running. As a whole, I have not seen much complaints at all about the Narduzzi hiring. He is a good coach that is coming from a successful program, and he has roots in the region being a Youngstown, Ohio native, which is not far from the city.
I think Pitt has a chance to do a lot of good in the ACC with a coach committed to winning and sticking around long enough to see it through. Pitt recently appointed a new Chancellor of the University, and he recently removed the long time Athletic Director that fell out of the good grace of the fan base long ago. So with a new leader, new AD, and a new football coach, many are optimistic that Pitt can take a big step forward in the coming seasons. The ACC Coastal is not that hard to navigate, and any team has a chance to win it in the foreseeable future. Pitt has only been in the ACC for two years now, and they have already had the ACC Defensive Player in the year in Aaron Donald back in 2013 and James Conner was the ACC Offensive player of the year this past season. Pitt can get good talent, it's a matter of putting it together all at once.
STS: Finally, while Pittsburgh isn't off to the kind of start you'd probably like, it's an enviable one from our vantage point. Do you see the Panthers having any trouble in this one?
CH: I certainly think Clemson can win the game. Pitt is struggling on offense mightily, they lack a true post presence, and overall this just seems to be a down year. Pitt has had different guys score big one night and go silent the next, it's a guessing game which team shows up each game. The one constant has been sophomore forward, Michael Young. He is a true power forward playing the center with aforementioned post problems. If he has a big game and some of the other guys knock down some outside shots, I think Pitt can win by 10. If Young is in foul trouble, and the offense goes ice cold like it did Tuesday, Clemson will win,
Having said all that, the students are back from break and the Oakland Zoo should be in full force, Pat Narduzzi is expected to be in attendance, and Jamie Dixon is going for career win 300. There will be a buzz at the arena, and Pitt has historically been tough to beat at home, so I'll predict a Pitt win.
STS: We thank Jim for sharing with us. Our answers to his questions are posted on Cardiac Hill.