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Pittsburgh Scouting Report: Slow and steady means Panthers wins

Marquette has won 18 straight home games but is just 2-3 away from the Bradley Center, including an 0-2 mark in true road games (Florida, Green Bay). The Golden Eagles will attempt to pick up that elusive road victory tomorrow afternoon when they travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers (13-3, 1-2).

A brutally easy non-conference schedule — one that included wins over seven teams ranked 240th or worse according to KenPom.com — masked a few of the Panthers’ weaknesses, as their 12-1 start had them ranked as high as No. 24 in the country. That quick start was just as soon vanished by losses to Cincinnati and Rutgers to open Big East play. They rebounded in a big way, blowing out Georgetown, 73-45, on the road on Tuesday. The Panther have gone 10-1 at home this year, and even in a down season a year ago, managed to go 15-7 at the Petersen Events Center.

Ashton Gibbs is gone, but senior point guard Tray Woodall has stepped into his role as the go-to guy well. Riddled by injuries a year ago, Woodall is averaging 11.4 points and 5.8 assists, and has one of the best effective field goal percentages in the country. Point guards (Shabazz Napier and Markel Starks) have gone off against Marquette in its first two Big East matchups, and that could be the case again Saturday.

Junior forward Talib Zanna has also improved his production in a larger role and, much like Davante Gardner, is hitting the offensive boards (2.9 per game) hard and drawing fouls (71 FT attempts) at an excellent rate. Also like Gardner, he’s doing his damage in jus 23 minutes per game.

Marquette’s biggest challenge, however, will be 7-foot freshman Steven Adams. The top-5 2012 prospect’s numbers haven’t been off the chart, but make no mistake, he’s the real deal. Averaging a team-high 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, Adams is making his presence felt on the defensive end, yet he also has games of 16 and 13 points. He’ll be a tough test, and Marquette likely will need Chris Otule to play increased minutes.

Can Davante Gardner play the role of shutting down Steven Adams by getting the freshman stud into foul trouble?

Can Davante Gardner play the role of shutting down Steven Adams by getting the freshman stud into foul trouble?

Adams isn’t the only freshman starter, however, as shooting guard James Robinson has managed well in his first year. His percentages are low, but he’s managed to average 4.3 assists per game — which is one of the reasons Pittsburgh is assisting on 66.1 percent of its made field goals, the seventh best mark in the country.

A duo of wings — juniors J.J. Moore and Lamar Patterson — are the two real outside shooting threats, but still are both shooting better than 46 percent from the field. They’re efficient, get to the free throw line and play solid defense. Moore comes off the bench, but makes the most of his 19.6 minutes per game.

Senior forward Dante Taylor, a former All-American, is second off the bench to Moore, while guards Cameron Wright and Trey Ziegler play reserve to starters Woodall and Robinson. Look for freshman wing Durand Johnson in spurts when the Panthers need outside help (37% from beyond the arc, 27-of-50 attempts from 3).

Where the Panthers are good

The Panthers likely aren’t worthy of a top-25 ranking just yet, but their statistics are as good as any team in the country. It starts with offensive efficiency, where the Panthers’ 345th slowest pace (of 347 teams) plays to Pittsburgh’s strengths: they shoot 55 percent effectively (15th), are grabbing better than 43 percent of their misses (5th) and turn the ball over on less than 16 percent of possessions (5th). Like Wisconsin, the Panthers are playing as well as they could be within their offense.

Pittsburgh’s depth allows them to play aggressively on defense, and they’re turning over opponents on almost 24 percent of possessions, the 36th best mark in the country. With Adams in the middle, Woodall patrolling the point and a bevy of long wings, points won’t come easy within the slow-paced game.

True, the Panthers start two freshmen, but the rest of the rotation has solid experience from a year ago, when only Gibbs and Nasir Robinson departed. The Zoo is one of the toughest venues to win at in the Big East, and it doesn’t hurt that the Panthers just crushed a Georgetown team on the road that Marquette needed all 40 minutes to defeat at home.

Where the Panthers can be beat

It may not pertain to Marquette, but Pitt opponents are attempting 36 percent of its shots from beyond the arc. They’re hitting just 31.4 percent of them — giving Pitt the 91st best mark defensively — but a key to beating the Panthers may be attacking from the perimeter. With Adams in the middle, Todd Mayo and Vander Blue may need to be proficient from beyond the arc.

If Marquette proved anything in wins over Wisconsin and Georgetown, it was that they can win while playing at an opponent’s pace. Pittsburgh wants to do just that, more so than those two other squads, and Marquette is finally built for that. While routinely playing three forwards, and two more (Juan Anderon, Steve Taylor) off the bench, the Golden Eagles have the personnel to slow the game down and still be efficient.

Three keys to the game

1. Gardner, the Adams killer?

Whenever doubting the 290-pound skilled big man, remember what he did to Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng. Gardner has the ability to isolate any big in the country. The freshman Adams committed four fouls in the loss to Cincinnati, and Gardner’s ability to draw fouls may be the key to opening up the paint.

2. Plugging in Derrick Wilson

The aforementioned point guard explosions from Napier and Starks have become cause for concern, as Junior Cadougan’s offensive improvement hasn’t meant the same defensively. Wilson has played just 11 and 9 minutes in Marquette’s first two Big East tilts, but it may be time to plug him in against Woodall, if only to slow the senior point guard down for a possession or two.

3. Stay strong on the offensive boards

In the last two games, Marquette has allowed just 13 offensive rebounds on opponents’ 60 missed shots. That 21.6 percent mark was outstanding, and now they’ll need to do it against one of the best rebounding teams in the country. Juan Anderson, Jamil Wilson and Trent Lockett likely will need to near a total of 21 rebounds for Marquette to have a chance.

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