GAMES NOTES: In the regional final of the 2012 NIT Season Tip-Off, the Lehigh Mountain Hawks square off with the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Petersen Events Center.
Lehigh advanced to face Pittsburgh by virtue of its 89-60 rout of Robert Morris on Monday night. That game featured a pair of teams that reached the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The win was the first of the season for the Mountain Hawks, who came into this season with a great deal of hype after pulling off one of the most stunning upsets in NCAA Tournament history last season by knocking off No. 2 seed Duke. The win over Robert Morris featured the largest margin of victory by Lehigh (29) since a 40-point downing of Arcadia last December.
Pittsburgh also had an easy go of it in its first-round matchup with Fordham. Led by a 20-point effort off the bench from J.J. Moore, the Panthers coasted to an 86-51 win over the Rams to earn their second win of the season. The 35- point margin of victory was the largest by a Pitt squad since 2010. It all also continued Pittsburgh's dominance against non-conference foes at the Petersen Events Center (93-3). Following this clash with Lehigh, Pitt will play a non-conference game against Oakland, also at home, before its next matchup in the tournament.
The winner of this game will move on to the tournament semifinals on Nov. 21 at Madison Square Garden. The loser will play in the consolation bracket on either Nov. 19 or Nov. 20. The location of the consolation round will be decided after the regional final round.
Surprisingly, Lehigh has the edge in the all-time series between these two squads with five wins in eight total matchups.
Five different players scored in double figures and 10 players scored overall for Lehigh in its win over Robert Morris. In the game, the Mountain Hawks shot a solid 51.7 percent, which included an 11-of-24 effort from beyond the arc. Lehigh also dished out 19 assists and forced 21 turnovers.
C.J. McCollum's return to the roster is a major reason for Lehigh's elevated expectations entering this season. Through two games, McCollum has more than lived up to the hype. He has led the Mountain Hawks in scoring in both games this season after a 19-point effort against Robert Morris. That point total was rather tame for McCollum who showed his ability to erupt offensively in the season opener against Baylor when he scored 36 points. McCollum has also led the team in rebounding through the first two games with 12 boards. Mackey McKnight seems to be fitting in nicely as a second option. He scored 15 points against Robert Morris and has been in double figures in both games this season. McKnight has also been contributing beyond scoring by averaging 6.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds in the first two contests. Holden Greiner has thus far been the most reliable frontcourt option (10.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg) after he scored 12 points and pulled down a team-high seven rebounds against Robert Morris. As a team, Lehigh seems to have picked up right where it left off last season, at least in terms of scoring. The Mountain Hawks ranked 29th in the nation last season (75.7 ppg) and are scoring at an 83 ppg pace through the first two games.
The Panthers offense ran smoothly in its recent win over Fordham. Moore's 7- of-11 effort from the floor helped the Panthers shoot an impressive 53.1 percent from the floor, and that included a 60.6 percent showing in the second half. Pittsburgh also spread the ball around well, with 10 players scoring at least four points while as a team, the Panthers handed out 24 assists. Pitt was also relentless on defense, forcing 19 turnovers and holding the Rams to 36.6 percent shooting.
Early in the season, Moore has been a spark plug off the bench for Pitt. After he had a solid night in the opener by scoring nine points, he erupted for 20 points against Fordham. The junior forward scored more than 20 points only once last season with a 21-point effort against South Florida. Tray Woodall turned in another decent performance by scoring 12 points while handing out five assists. He is now averaging 13 points and 5.5 assists per game through the first two contests. Talib Zanna did not need to be as offensive-minded against Fordham as he was in the opener, and he netted just eight points after posting 20 against Mount Saint Mary's. The forward did improve his efforts on the glass though with five rebounds compared to the two he had in the opener. Steven Adams (13 points, 5 rebounds) also finished in double figures in the win, and through the first two games he is the team's leading rebounder (6.5 rpg). Although it is early, and the level of competition needs to be taken into account, Pitt is shooting 64.3 percent from the field while scoring 83 ppg.
The backcourt battle between Woodall and McColllum makes this an intriguing matchup. Pittsburgh has looked formidable in its first two games, and should be able to harass McCollum enough defensively to move on to Madison Square Garden.