Pitt finally opens conference play today at N.C. State.
PITTSBURGH – Jamie Dixon didn’t know if the impending inaugural game in the ACC was the reason, but the Pitt coach sensed the excitement when his Panthers arrived early for their first post-Christmas practice.
“They seem excited being back. If that’s the reason, the ACC, I don’t know,” Dixon said. “ACC or not, we came back in a good frame of mind, ready to get better.”
After months of celebrating its move to the ACC, Pitt finally opens conference play Saturday at N.C. State. The Panthers were predicted in the preseason to finish sixth.
“Anything new brings outside excitement and brings talking points,” Dixon said. “There’s something to the first time you’re playing an ACC game. It’s something you can’t hide from. It was great for our school, for our university – you have to be part of those five (BCS conferences), and we are – and it’s exciting.”
Where Dixon was once outspoken about his desire to remain in the Big East, calling it the best conference in college basketball, he now believes that adding the likes of Duke and North Carolina to the schedule while still playing in the same league as Syracuse and Notre Dame has greater benefits – especially after more than a decade of dealing with the ever-changing conference realignments that affected the Big East.
“The new teams that come with it far outweigh the ones that people bring up that we won’t be playing,” Dixon said. “There’s too many bonuses, too many pluses, too many advantages. There’s a lot of great things, and the buildup has been evident by our players and our fans.
“There is a sense that we’re already in it and we’ve already done it, but until you play the games, it won’t be fully here. We’ve been talking about it for so long and conference affiliation from almost the day we got here almost 15 years ago, that the sense that we are in a permanent place, which was never the feeling for the first 15 years, is a good feeling.”
That feeling has permeated throughout Pitt, where Panthers players are pumped to play their first ACC game. Redshirt sophomore swingman Durand Johnson, a Baltimore native, played with and against many ACC players prior to college and is friends with N.C. State star T.J. Warren.
“It’s an exciting week,” Johnson said. “Just this being the first game, Saturday is going to be a big test for us. I think our guys are ready. We’re ready to go out there and compete.
“The Big East is more (about) physicality, more toughness and isn’t as fast as the ACC. The ACC guys run all day long. I think they’ll have a problem adjusting to us and our physicality, but we’ve been running and we’ve been playing fast in our pace, so I think that will be our biggest adjustment. But come first game, I think we’ll be fine.”
Pitt ended its non-conference schedule with a 12-1 record, its lone loss coming against Cincinnati, 44-43, Dec. 17 in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. That game saw fifth-year senior swingman Lamar Patterson miss two free throws with a one-point lead and 20.7 seconds remaining and then the Bearcats score off an offensive rebound.
“We finished 12-1 -0 – we should have finished 13-0 – but we know how to build off it,” Patterson said. “We feel good. We feel ready. Now it’s just getting to it and showing what we can do in the conference. I feel like we’re prepared, but we still have a long ways to go until where we want to be. Coach will have us ready by the time Saturday comes along.”
Dixon has drawn criticism for scheduling soft non-conference games the past two seasons, which has played a role in keeping Pitt out of the national rankings. So the start of ACC play also could pay dividends for the Panthers, if they can prove they are among the best in one of the most competitive conferences in college basketball.
Following Pitt’s 58-46 victory over Albany on New Year’s Eve, Great Danes coach Will Brown – a self-described basketball “junkie” – predicted that the Panthers would rank among the ACC’s top four teams, alongside Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse.
“Those are the best four teams in the ACC,” Brown said. “Anytime you defend and rebound at a high level consistently, whether you’re good offensively and have great shooting or whatever it is, you’re going to be in games, even when you don’t play well. That’s the thing about Pitt: Pitt’s never going to be out of a game because they defend and rebound.
“They’re a team that nobody is going to enjoy to play against.”
Yet Pitt has a point to prove. The Panthers, as Brown said, have been built on a foundation of defense and rebounding, and neither are this team’s strengths.
Pitt has had difficulty defending quick point guards, as evidenced by Penn State’s Tim Frazier scoring 27 points and Youngstown State’s Kendrick Perry scoring 28. Pitt was badly beaten on the boards against Cincinnati, allowing 16 offensive rebounds and giving up second-chance scoring to team that made only three of 13 three-pointers and was one of three from the free throw line.
Looking Like They Belong
The Panthers, despite their Big East background, have quickly morphed into a team that should adapt easily to the ACC. They are longer and leaner than in the past, with no starter shorter than 6-3, and thrive in the transition game. Their top two players, Patterson and 6-9 center Talib Zanna, are fifth-year seniors who average double-figures scoring.
Patterson, who is averaging 17 points a game, has topped his career high three times this season, with a 30-point effort against Cal Poly Dec. 21. Zanna, averaging 12 points and 7.5 rebounds, saw his statistics slip in conference play last season and must maintain his play.
The surprise has been redshirt junior Cameron Wright, who is averaging more than 11 points a game and is coming off his best all-around game. Known last season as a defensive stopper, the 6-4 shooting guard had 14 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and three steals without a turnover against Albany, showing his versatility and playmaking ability.
And providing steady play at the point is sophomore James Robinson, whose 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks among the nation’s best. Although he hasn’t shown a penchant for scoring, Robinson is a clutch player who has a tendency to hit big shots and sink crucial free throws.
The problem for Pitt is that beyond those four and sixth-man Johnson, a streaky three-point shooter, the remainder of the roster is full of newcomers who have yet to provide a consistent spark. Freshmen Michael Young and Jamel Artis are showing promise in splitting time at power forward, combining for 11 points and eight rebounds a game. But there is a give in both of their games. Where Young lacks Artis’ offensive aptitude, Artis isn’t as good of a rebounder or post defender as Young.
Freshman Josh Newkirk utilizes his quickness to give a change of pace at the point, but doesn’t run the offense as fluidly as Robinson. Derrick Randall, a 6-9 transfer from Rutgers, gives Zanna a chance to catch his breath but is mostly a rebounder with a tendency to draw fouls. And redshirt freshman Chris Jones has seen limited minutes, mostly due to the flexibility of Wright and Patterson to play multiple positions.
The one wild card could be junior-college transfer Joseph Uchebo, a 6-10, 260-pound redshirt sophomore center from Nigeria. Uchebo arrived at Pitt following knee surgery and wasn’t cleared to practice until December. He has yet to see game action this season, but he is a post presence the team lacks.
Dixon said Uchebo is “still really struggling in transition, going up and down the floor,” so it’s been hard for the Panthers to gauge whether he can have an impact this season. He missed two days of practice with an ankle injury, and still appears to have trust issues with his balky knee.
“He’s been out there more, we’ve seen him more, but we still don’t have a great feel for where he’s at,” Dixon said. “I don’t think you really know until a game situation. You’ve got to be out there to improve. I tell the guys the only way to get better is to be out there practicing. That’s what we’re focusing on.”
“Our main guys are the guys that we know. We’ve got to get those guys better, as well. We’ll see how it plays out. If he makes your team better, you’ll find a way. There’s no set way of doing anything when you’ve had a situation like he’s been through.”
If Uchebo is unable to practice on a regular basis and can’t crack the rotation this season, don’t be surprised if Pitt tries to appeal to the NCAA for an additional year of eligibility. Uchebo already took a redshirt, so he would need NCAA approval for a sixth season.
That could either affect future recruiting at the center position in one of two ways. If Uchebo is able to gain an extra year, Pitt wouldn’t have to make center a recruiting priority. The Panthers already signed 6-11 Shaquille Doorson of The Netherlands for the Class of 2014. If Uchebo can’t recover, it could open a scholarship for the Panthers to recruit another big man. They are hot after 6-9 junior Cheick Diallo of Our Savior New American in Centereach, N.Y., a teammate of junior point guard Damon Wilson, a Pitt commit.
The biggest impact on recruiting, of course, could come down to how the Panthers perform in their inaugural season in the ACC.