Originally written on Pitt Blather  |  Last updated 11/14/14

A wheel came off of my car this morning. Taking my son to school, then heading to work was the plan. Instead, as I got part way up my street, I felt the car shift and the sound of something dragging. Pull partway into a neighbor’s driveway. Park, get out, look around the car and see nothing. Get back in, back out and whoomp. The right front wheel is at an awkward angle, and not attached to the car. The “good news.” Going so slow, meant not additional damage that would have happened had it even happened at 25 mph. It would appear that it is just a ball joint that went, so it is fixable. So, um, yeah. Please go and vote for me in the Biggest Fan in the Big East. I really need a new car.

Moving on to assorted basketball things as I’m really out of whack today, and a wheel literally coming off makes a cosmic sort of sense.

Khem Birch, in case you hadn’t heard is heading to UNLV. So much for the homesickness. He does get the uptempo style he has now decided he wants. You know, when he gets on the court in January 2013.

No shortage of reasons why Pitt has lost 5 games already this season and in the midst of a 4-game losing streak. The biggest problem seems to be finding solutions. Jeff Eisenberg rattles off a few, but only seems to believe one that is fixable — mainly with the return of Tray Woodall. The problem is, no one has a clear sense of when Woodall is going to return.

Dixon said Monday that Woodall did not practice the past two days and did only skill work on the side. He did not have an update on when he will be able to return to the lineup.

“I don’t know where he’s at right now,” Dixon said. “He did some skill work [Sunday and Monday]. I don’t know where he’ll be [today]. It’s strictly on his feel. He’s not getting any more MRIs. It’s how he feels and what he can do. It’s solely up to him.”

Woodall came back after missing six games to play in a reserve role against Notre Dame in the Dec. 27 Big East opener. He played 18 minutes and was largely ineffective, going 0 for 5 from the field with two assists and two turnovers.

After that game, Woodall said he did not feel like he could do what he needed to do in order to be effective. It appears Woodall has the go ahead from team doctors to play, but it’s a matter of him getting comfortable on the court.

“We’re trying to figure it out,” Dixon said. “Our trainers thought he was going to have more difficulty than he thought he would have [against Notre Dame]. He wants to play. That always makes guys feel better than they are. It’s such a unique injury. It’s just one of those things. You just have to go by what he feels he can do.”

Woodall coming back, but not being able stay in front of his man or struggling to penetrate will not improve Pitt. He needs to be back where he can take the charge and get into the paint. He’s not going to be effective hanging out on the perimeter and getting beaten defensively.

Even before Woodall’s injury, though, Pitt’s defense has been struggling.

“We don’t guard the dribble real well,” Dixon said afterward when asked to pinpoint his team’s defensive deficiencies. “We don’t keep it in front. Some of our turnovers lead to layups, which gives them a higher field-goal percentage. We just don’t seem to guard the penetration well. There are some other things, but that’s the main thing.”

The numbers don’t lie. Last season, Pitt ranked first in the Big East in scoring defense (60.1 ppg) and first in field-goal percentage defense (.387).

This season, Pitt ranks 12th in the conference in scoring defense (66.5 ppg) and 15th in field-goal percentage defense (.441).

In the realm of tempo-free stats, Pitt has been just as abysmal. While Pitt’s defensive reputation has been overrated the last few years, this has been a precipitous fall. In no small part because the perimeter defense is so much weaker without guys like Wanamaker, Brown and Dixon. There are guys with potential — Wright, Johnson, Patterson and Moore — but they either aren’t yet or don’t care to on a consistent basis.

In that vein, though, this article on officiating in college caught my eye. It is an interview with the NCAA director of officiating, John Adams. Adams has been in charge for the last 4 years, and his goal for the way games are played really go against Pitt’s style of defense.

“Our game will be better if players are allowed to run relatively unencumbered around the court,” Adams said. “We’ve always had incidental contact and it’s not going away, but if the contact causes a player’s balance or quickness to be affected, it’s supposed to be a foul. You don’t want to give either the offense or the defense an unfair advantage.”

Defensively Pitt has been at its best when it bumps opposing teams. Able to play really tight inside the perimeter to keep teams from penetrating and getting inside easily.

The shift in the last few years in how the games are being called is not the reasons why Pitt is doing so poorly on defense. That has much more to do with the actual players. It does, however, factor into why Pitt is struggling more off the dribble and the perimeter. They can’t get away with bumping a player off his dribble when he tries to make a move, and given the lack of quickness defensively by the perimeter players they have to play off more to keep them in front. That is setting up for easier 3-point shots.

Making the situation more maddening, is that Pitt looked at least decent for stretches and held leads in the games they have lost in the last couple weeks. The second halfs, however, have been a nightmare.

It’s been a very odd (in a bad way) season. Chris Dokish has listed some of the best college coaches who have had their struggle seasons. It only seems impossible to happen when it is your team experiencing it. And there are no shortage of teams that seem to be off this year. Wisconsin has lost 3 at home this year, and riding a 3-game losing streak over all. Louisville has lost 2 straight at their home. The entire Pac-12. Texas. Villanova. Making Jay Wright and Jamie Dixon looking NIT bound in the same year.

It’s been quite a weird time. Gary Parrish at CBSsports.com has found that 4 of his preseason top-10 teams completely unranked by him at the moment: UConn, Vandy, Memphis and Pitt. Annoyingly, but probably close to accurate, he’s only pessimistic about the chances to turn things around with Pitt.

What went wrong? First came the loss to Long Beach State and most of us just kinda thought it was “one of those nights.” But it wasn’t. It was, rather, a sign of things to come because the Panthers now have five losses to unranked teams. They’re surprisingly terrible defensively, and they don’t get to the line enough offensively. It has been, simply put, a mess of a season made worse because the best recruit (Khem Birch) transferred out of the program at the semester.

Who’s been the biggest disappointment? Ashton Gibbs is averaging the same 17 points per game he averaged last season, but he’s shooting the ball way worse. The senior guard shot 47 percent from the field and 49 percent from 3-point range last season. This season he’s shooting 39 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3-point range.

UConn is still a loaded roster, Vandy is probably getting better with players getting healthy, and Memphis plays in C-USA to make it easier for them.

In recruiting notes — because looking to an unformed future is always preferable. Doubly so, when things aren’t going well in the present. Coach Dixon took a look at the CRC Classic that included DeMatha Classic. A chance to see 2012 Pitt commit, Point Guard James Robinson and his teammate (and 2013 target) Center Beejay Anya. Robinson had a poor game, but Anya looked great.

There are a lot of teams after Anya: Georgetown, Syracuse, Ohio St., UCLA, Texas and more. Pitt is on that list.

“Coach Dixon and Coach Knight are both very good guys and I really consider them to be among the best coaches in college basketball and Jamie Dixon does a great job every year there and their always at the top of the Big East and hopefully next year they continue that in the ACC or the year after that (smiles) hopefully you know if they can continue to recruit me it would be a good fit because they give the ball to their big men like DeJuan Blair and Gary McGhee.”

And don’t think his teammate isn’t trying to influence the decision.

“I decided to choose Pittsburgh because I felt they were the best fit for me and I feel very comfortable with Coach Dixon and the rest of the staff, I felt comfortable around the players and I think I can come in there and make an impact.”

On his play in the game: “I think a couple of us are a little under the weather but that’s no excuse as a team we didn’t come out and play as well as we should’ve. Fortunately enough thanks to Jairus and Bee-Jay we were able to get the victory.”

On Anya possibly following him to Pitt: “Hopefully that’s what we’re trying to do that’s definitely on the radar. You know hopefully Bee-Jay will come to Pitt with me you know he’s a lot better than he was last year, he’s lost a lot of weight and he’s improving every day on the basketball court.”

Anya is wide-open at this point. He’s not going to be making a quick decision based on the way he spoke well of most teams recruiting him.

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