Watching the Final Four this weekend I couldn't help but notice the similarities between the Wisconsin team of this year and Pitt's 2009 team that came within a hair of the Final Four.
Wisconsin was led by Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky who averaged 18.8 ppg and 8.2 rpg this season. Pitt had Player of the Year runner-up DeJuan Blair who averaged 15.7 ppg and 12.3 rpg. I think it's safe to say they are equal. The next best player for the Badgers was Sam Dekker, who averaged 13.9 ppg and 5.5 rpg. The Panthers counter with their own star small forward in Sam Young, who averaged 19.2 ppg and 6.3 rpg. While Dekker got a lot of publicity during the tournament it's apparent that Young was a better player.
In the big games near the end of the tournament, the duos are also equal. Kaminsky went for 29 points and 6 rebounds in the Elite 8 game, followed by 20 points and 11 rebounds against Kentucky in the Final Four game, and 21 points and 12 rebounds in the final. Dekker had 27 points and 5 rebounds in the Elite 8 game, 16 points and 3 rebounds in the Final Four game, and 12 points and 8 rebounds in the championship game. Blair went for 20 points and 10 rebounds in the Elite 8 loss to Villanova. He was also 9-9 from the field. Sam Young went off for 28 points and 7 rebounds in the Elite 8 loss. Again, both duos did not disappoint.
Pitt's third best player on the '09 team was Levance Fields while Wisconsin started two point guards on the year. Traevon Jackson was the designated starter at the beginning of the season, and was the starter last season, but a foot injury cost him half the year this season. Anybody that has seen Jackson play saw that he's amazingly slow and not athletic, even on a team that's pretty slow and not athletic. On the season he averaged 8.1 ppg, 2.6 apg, and 0.9 spg, while shooting 43.2% from the field and 28.2% from three. His 85.1% FT shooting is really his only strength. His replacement at starter, Bronson Koenig, averaged 8.7 ppg, 2.5 apg, and a minuscule 0.2 spg. He shot just 41.4% from the floor, but he did make 40.5% of his three point shots and 81.2% free throws.
Fields in '09 averaged 10.7 ppg, a fantastic 7.5 apg, and 0.8 spg, while shooting 39.8% from the floor, 34.1% from three, and 71.2% from the free throw line. Again, this seems mostly even.
In tournament action Koening had 6 points and 3 assists in the Elite 8, 12 points and 2 assists in the Final Four, and 10 points and 4 assists in the final. Fields, in the Elite 8, he had 10 points and 6 assists. Once again, very comparable.
So, we've established that Pitt's two best players in '09 were at least as good as Wisconsin's two best players (at both center and small forward), as well as at point guard. That leaves shooting guard and power forward.
At shooting guard, neither team could consider it a strength. The Badgers started Josh Gasser, who averaged 6.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.8 spg, 44.3% from the floor, 38.9% from three, and 82.7% from the line. Pitt trotted out Jermaine Dixon who averaged 8.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.4 spg, 44% from the floor, 29.4% from three, and 65.7% from the line. Again, they're roughly the same, though Gasser is clearly the better shooter.
Both were also pretty unproductive when it mattered. Gasser had 10 points in the Elite 8 game, but he had 3 points in the Final Four, and no points in the final. In fact, he attempted just one shot in 36 minutes in the final. He did, however, at least have 6 rebounds. In the '09 Elite 8 game Dixon played just 20 minutes and had just 5 points on 1-6 shooting.
At power forward, Wisconsin had a big advantage. Nigel Hayes averaged 12.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 49.7% from the field, 39.6% from three, and 74.4% from the line. For Pitt, Tyrell Biggs averaged 6.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 49.5% from the field, 39.6% from three, and 62.5% from the line.
In the Elite 8 game, Hayes had 8 points and 3 rebounds, in the Final Four he had 12 points and 5 rebounds, and in the championship game he had 13 points and 1 rebound. Biggs, in the '09 Elite game, had no points in 15 minutes.
As often seems the case with Pitt basketball it was a case of bad timing and bad luck. The '09 team finally had two bonafide stars at their best at the same time, as well as a good veteran point guard. But after that they had nothing. Dixon and Biggs were mediocre starters at best, and the reserves was filled with the likes of Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, and Ashton Gibbs, none of whom were ready to contribute. All three eventually were starters on a future No. 1 seed team but they weren't ready to add much of anything in 2009. Look at Duke last night. Not all of their stars were doing well and they get saved by a freshman guard that just happened to be a McDonald's All-American. The blue blood programs can do that whereas most programs, like Pitt and Wisconsin, don't have a little used McDonald's All-American to come out of nowhere to bail them out.
But Pitt and Wisconsin both proved what a program that isn't one of the blue blood programs have to do. Kaminsky was a middling Power 5 recruit, but he developed into a star. That doesn't happen often so you can never count on that. Dekker was a top 20 prospect, and from Wisconsin. Blair was also an elite local recruit and it shows just how important it is to have elite prospects locally. Both Bo Ryan and Jamie Dixon get a rare local gem to stay home and both turn into powers when those players reach their peak.
At the end of the day, Wisconsin proved what Pitt has known for awhile, and that's that without a roster full of elite talent, that only the blue blood programs can do, everything has to be perfect to have any chance at all, and even then the elite talent will win in the end.