Pitt Basketball Heads into Conference Play New and Improved

(USA Today)

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It's been an up and down season for the Pitt men's basketball team thus far, but things are starting to look up as they begin conference play tonight at 8:00 against Notre Dame.  The Panthers enter tonight's home game with a lowly 5-7 record, but riding a 2-game win streak.  They look to keep this momentum going during the most significant part of their season.

Pitt is on only their second winning streak of the season, having won back-to-back games one other time.  Their two most recent wins were a 59-57 upset against a St. John's team that was missing top-scorer Julian Champagnie, brother of former Pitt start Justin Champagnie, and a 64-55 victory against Jacksonville.  Both games featured a much improved Pitt team than what we saw to start the year.  

While the offense still isn't great, they have at least begun to find an identity on that side of the ball.  Guards Jamarius Burton and Femi Odukale have picked up some of the scoring slack, aiding center John Hugley, who was the only scoring option at the beginning of the season.  This team wants to play slowly and that is very evident when you see the majority of their games featuring scores in the 50s by each team.  However, that plays to their advantage when you look at what they've been able to do defensively.

While the offense may not be all that adept at scoring, this team has been making up for it on the defensive end.  They have been forcing teams to also play slowly, by using their length to take away passing lanes and inducing poor shots.  Their ability to rebound has also kept opponents off the offensive glass, limiting second-chance opportunities.  

Prior to their last game against Jacksonville, the previous five games were decided by one or two possessions.  That's a testament to the defense when you consider Pitt's below-average offensive numbers.  They've played a bend but don't break style that has allowed them to be much more competitive than they were at the beginning of the season.

All of this is said under tempered expectations, however.  Growing up, us fans would have been disappointed with any loss heading into conference play, let alone a losing record.  Losses to the Citadel and Monmouth would have been downright unacceptable.  But, we're in a different era of Pitt basketball.  We've gone from wanting to win the ACC to wanting to beat the bottom-half opponents and hoping to stay competitive against the top-tier ones.  So as the team heads into conference play tonight, I'm choosing to look at the positives.

Realistically, the goal this year was to see improvement over the course of the season.  This team features a lot of young players.  So while we can dream of them winning bunches of games, that really isn't feasible with this squad.  Therefore, improvement will have to be the barometer for this team's success.  

And under that premise, I've liked what I've seen thus far.  This team was dreadful to start the season, lacking any real identity at both ends of the court.  However, that no longer seems to be the case.  And while there will undoubtedly still be growing pains, especially against the Dukes and Louisvilles and Florida States, to already see improvement is a good sign.  

As is the current two-game winning streak they sport.  This team could've easily been overcome by the moment when traveling to Madison Square Garden to face off against a superior St. John's squad.  But, they battled all game long and were able to squeak out a win in the end.  It is an indication that this young team is truly starting to figure things out.  Let's hope they can continue to do so tonight against a frisky Fighting Irish team, and even further into ACC play.