The Gonzaga Bulldogs open the season in a land far away against the Pittsburgh Panthers as part of the Armed Forces Classic. The Bulldogs, at least by my records, haven't ever played the Panthers, so it seems a bit hard to figure out anything about them.
Luckily, the beauty of the SB Nation network is that there is a blog for every team. Anson Whaley over at Cardiac Hill was quite kind in taking the time to answer a few questions.
1) Gonzaga has a lot of height up front (assuming Domantas Sabonis is healthy for the game). How will Pittsburgh be able to match up against the front line of Gonzaga?
Pitt will have its hands full in trying to defend those guys. Last season, the Panthers were very undersized. 6'9" Michael Young played center most of the time and he's a true power forward while 6'7" Jamel Artis (more of a small forward) played quite a bit at power forward. What we saw then was that the athleticism of those guys was helpful on offense, but they sometimes ran into trouble in getting shots off in the paint. Defensively, too, they had trouble sometimes in guarding taller players.
Fortunately for Pitt, they landed some help via transfers in the middle with Rafael Maia and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa. Unfortunately, those guys are on the smaller side, too (they are both also 6'9", but what they will do is hopefully allow Young and Artis to play more at their natural positions of power forward and small forward. Either way you look at it, though, they are undersized to be sure.
Since Gonzaga has so much height, Pitt can't simply rely on something like getting them in foul trouble. There are too many taller players to make that an effective strategy. I think they're going to need to rely on double teams on defense to try to cause some turnovers and play around the perimeter, knocking down some shots from the outside on offense. More than anything, offensively they're going to have to move the ball and work on getting quality shots. For what it's worth, that's something that the Panthers have done well in the past, though I think they struggled with it a little last season.
2) Pitt is picked to finish 10th in the ACC during preseason polls, but is currently ranked. No. 30 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. What are the expectation of the team this year?
For whatever reason, they generally rank well in Pomeroy's rankings. The expectation by most is a trip back to the NCAA Tournament. They missed that last year for only the second time in Jamie Dixon's tenure at Pitt. The Panthers have a lot of moving parts, but also have their three best players back from last season in Young, Artis, and four-year point guard James Robinson. With those three hopefully making strides as well as part-time starter last season, Sheldon Jeter, and the transfers to help at center, Pitt should see improvement at all five positions from last year. The Panthers did lose some key players from their bench but many would argue that the additions outweigh the losses as a whole.
I think the No. 10 ranking in the conference is a little low, but based on what they did last season, can understand why the voters didn't give them much respect. Most of the preseason rankings consist of voters looking at last year's results and returning seniors. The Panthers had a bad season last year and have only one key senior returning that was with the team last year. Still, I expect to see more from them just because of what they added and what they return. Last year, seven of the top nine scorers were underclassmen. This was a very young team and one that should get better with another year of experience.
A Sweet 16 appearance would be considered a great season but the bare minimum has to be getting back into the tournament. Next season is the one Pitt fans should see a chance at real improvement, but there's plenty of optimism for this year's team and I (perhaps foolishly) see them as being pretty good. I could see them getting into the Top 25 at some point this year but the key is going to be how quickly all of the new transfers adjust.
3) Are there any players that you think will have a breakout year for the Panthers this season?
Young and Artis had breakout years to some degree last season as they pretty much carried the team. But I also think that this year, they'll get more recognition on a national level. Their numbers were pretty modest for 'best players on the team' status but I can see one of them breaking out and having a pretty big season. In terms of other guys stepping forward and contributing a lot more, I think forward Sheldon Jeter fits that mold. He really came on last season in some games and while he was on and down, he gave the team some big performances, including 22 points in the Panthers' win over a Top 15 North Carolina team.
There are also the four transfers that should contribute, but we just haven't seen them yet and can't have any real idea how they'll fit in.