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Elite Eight Preview: Villanova-Pittsburgh

NCAA Xavier Pittsburgh Basketball

When Villanova knocked off Pittsburgh on Jan. 28, Head Coach Jay Wright said that he hoped he would never have to see the Panthers again.  Although the Wildcats avoided them in the Big East tournament, when the NCAA tournament bracket came out on Selection Sunday, the two teams found themselves in the same region, which to some experts meant that a rematch was inevitable.  Now that the rematch is here, let’s take a look at Pittsburgh, a team that has changed a lot since the first time these two teams met.

Strengths:  For most of the season, Pittsburgh was considered the best team in the Big East, and by some the best team in the country.  The reason for that was its experience and physical play.  Led by senior guard Levance Fields and senior forward Sam Young, the Panthers have been through every battle possible in their four years with the team.  However, what puts the team over the edge is the play of sophomore forwards DeJuan Blair.  He is the most physical player in the country, and gives the Pittsburgh a decisive rebounding advantage coming into every game.  Together Young, Fields and Blair, make up possibly the best offensive threesome in the nation.

Weaknesses:  In its last four games, Pittsburgh’s supporting players have been the reason the team has looked so vulnerable.  In its Big East tournament game and three NCAA tournament games, only one player (freshman guard Ashton Gibbs) has had 10 points in a game besides Young, Fields and Blair.  The lack of production from the team’s role players is something that needs to be corrected if Pittsburgh is going to advance to the Final Four.

The Panthers also lack a consistent shooter from beyond the 3-point arc and that weakness is showing up in March.  In its last four games, Pittsburgh is shooting 31.4 percent from 3-point range, which is below its season average of 35.4 percent.

Who to Watch:  Talk to anyone across the country, and the first player they name on Pittsburgh is Blair.  However, ask anyone on Villanova, and the player they are most concerned with is Fields.  As he showed against Xavier, Fields has a knack for making the big play late, even when he is struggling for the majority of the game.  What makes Fields most dangerous is his ability to beat teams without scoring.  He has an uncanny ability to make the right play, as shown by his Big East best 3.7/1 assist to turnover ratio.  By stopping the motor of the Panther’s offense, Villanova will greatly improve its chances to win the game.

What to expect:  So far this tournament, Villanova is playing like the No. 1-seed rather than Pittsburgh.  Villanova has been able to demolish its opponents while Pittsburgh has squeaked by with narrow victories against inferior opponents.  Nevertheless, this is not the type of game Villanova will be able to run away with like its last two.  This will be a classic, physical Big East battle that will most likely come down to the final minute. In such a physical game, fouls will be prevalent, so look for the team who can avoid fouls to its best players as the one that advances to Detroit.

-David Cassilo

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