Five To Watch: Pitt-Virginia

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Starting the month of February, Jamie Dixon has asked his players to pick two individual areas of improvement. The hope is if everyone focuses on two individual goals, Dixon will see even more improvement from his team as a whole. A lot of it starts on defense.

* It was only Pittsburgh's third loss of the year, but the 80-65 loss to Duke on Monday showcased an alarming trend. In its last two games, Pitt allowed 79 points and 80 points.

The 79 points was hidden thanks to 85 points scored in the win over Maryland. Jamie Dixon--immediately following Monday's loss--said it wasn't a matter of scoring more points against Duke, rather figuring a way to cut down on some of those points allowed.

In other words, Pitt has some concerns on defense, which is one of its major area of focus, if not the major focus, of a Dixon-coached team.

"The problem was defensively-minded," Dixon said. "Our defense and rebounding combined were not good enough to win this game."

For starters, Dixon has asked each one of his players to set an individual goal for the month of February.

"We talked to each guy, and asked them on what they want to improve on, in February," Dixon said. "I want two things, what they want to improve on."

* One noticeable thing about this year's team is their struggles after a long layoff, their success in a short turnaround. Look back to December, where Pitt had layoffs of eight days, ten days, and four days--four games in a span of 18 days. Starting with Sunday's game, they will play four games in a span of 10 days, including three this week.

They looked rusty in games against Youngstown State (eight day layoff), Albany (10 day layoff), and the early 17-2 lead they spotted to N.C. State.

They played well in November, defeating Texas Tech, Stanford and Duquesne by an average margin of 22 points, in a span of five days.

Sunday's game is a challenge of itself, regardless of the opposition, because Pitt is coming off a six-day layoff.

* Expect a low scoring game. Tony Bennett employs a defense-first mentality. Virginia is second in the conference, allowing just 55 points a game. Pitt isn't far behind, sixth in the conference, allowing 65.1 points a game.

Virginia likes to play tough inside, while defending the perimeter. They have allowed the lowest shooting percentage, keeping opponents to an average of 38 percent shooting for the season.

Offensively, Virginia likes to be patient, similar to Pitt. They often pass up a good look, making an extra pass. In a way, it's some familiarity for Pitt, practicing against it every day. At the same time, it's also easy for Virginia, doing the same. The two teams almost cancel each other out in this area. It should be a good battle of teams making the extra pass, being extremely disciplined on offense, and taking care of second-chance points. Every little miss will be extremely crucial.

"A lot of the same fundamentals we have defensively," Dixon said. "We practice against a lot of the same things every day."

* Ass Dixon alluded to, he's asked each player to find two things to improve on. Jamel Artis has had a good start to his freshman season. He connected on a pair of three-pointers against Duke in the first half. He played six minutes in the first half, which looked like a good start. Though he played just as many minutes in the second half, he didn't have as much of an impact on defense.

The loss wasn't solely on Artis' shoulders. However, it's reflective of the type of individual performance Dixon is looking for in this self-evaluation. Artis also acknowledge it, knowing that if he wants to continue to gain minutes, it all starts on defense.

"I just have to pick it up more on defense, so I can help my team more," Artis said. "If I can't play defense, there's no reason for me to see the floor. I have to focus on the gaps, help my teammates out."

* Pitt's 18-3 record is certainly a good start, but they have a big month of games in February, that will go a long way in determining its postseason chances.

Pitt has losses to two of the top teams in RPI (Duke - 16, Syracuse - 6). Virginia's RPI is 22 for the moment. Of the 18 wins, Pitt doesn't have a win over a top-50 RPI team yet. A win over Virginia would be a nice resume booster.

* Virginia is having a storied season, starting off ACC play with a 7-1 record for the first time since 1982-83 when the Wahoos had legendary Ralph Sampson on its roster. A win for Virginia on Sunday would tie their best conference start since the 1981-82 season.

* Virginia started off the season 9-4, with none-conference losses to Virginia Commonwealth, Wisconsin, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Tennessee.

In those four losses, Virginia lost by an average of 7.6 points a game. In this 7-1 start to conference play, the Hoos have an average margin of victory of 10 points a game.

* In each of its seven conference wins, Virginia has led by 21 points or more at some point in the game. Pitt has not trailed anyone by 20 points or more at any point this season.

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