Pitt is looking for ways to replace the scoring punch of injured swingman Durand Johnson.
PITTSBURGH – Durand Johnson was developing into as dangerous sixth man as there is the ACC, as the Pitt redshirt sophomore swingman followed a career-high 17 points against Maryland with an 11-point performance against Wake Forest when he crumpled to the court with a torn ACL.
The Panthers could have had a similar collapse, given their distractions: They lost Johnson, their top three-point threat, for the season. They returned to the national rankings for the first time, entering the USA Today Coaches’ poll at No. 21 and the Associated Press poll at No. 22. And they were undefeated in league play heading to Georgia Tech.
That could have been a trap game for Pitt, which was forced to turn to four freshmen to pick up the scoring slack for Johnson’s 8.8 points a game and, more importantly, the infusion of energy he brought.
“It’s going to be a team effort,” Pitt sophomore point guard James Robinson said. “What Durand brought to this team was incredible, so it’s not going to be one person to fill that void. We’ve all got to pick it up.”
Robinson scored in double figures for just the fourth time this season, going for 11 of his 16 points in the first half. Redshirt junior shooting guard Cameron Wright added 14 points, as the backcourt duo combined for almost a dozen points above their combined average.
“James can score and I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent this year, but we lost Durand and that hurt all of us,” Wright said. “We’re playing for him because he deserves it. He brings energy, things that coaches can’t coach. He brings a passion to the game, his intensity and, of course, that three-point shot that we’re going to definitely miss.”
There were signs of trouble early, especially after reigning ACC player of the week Lamar Patterson missed all five shots in going scoreless with four turnovers in the first half.
But fellow fifth-year senior Talib Zanna had 22 points and nine rebounds as the Panthers finished with a plus-20 margin in rebounds and recovered for an 81-74 victory over the Yellow Jackets at McCamish Pavilion. The Panthers’ physicality has drawn strong praise from opponents, including Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory
“There’s tough,” Gregory said, “and then there’s Pittsburgh.”
That set up a showdown between Pitt (16-1, 4-0) with No. 2 Syracuse (17-0, 4-0) at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Carrier Dome for first place in conference standings.
“Honestly, we didn’t even bring up the thought that Syracuse is coming down the schedule,” Robinson said afterward. “Our main focus was Georgia Tech. We’re very fortunate to be in the position we’re in. We know we have a lot of work to do. We have a big game coming up against Syracuse, so we’re right back to the drawing board to get ready for them.”
This could be the game where the Panthers miss Johnson most. The 6-5 swingman has been a streak shooter, but with picture-perfect form he’s as good of a three-point shooter when hot as anyone in the country. Pitt could use such a threat against the Orange and their signature 2-3 zone.
Dixon has preached about the character of this team, noting that eight players making the honor roll in the fall semester. These Panthers have chemistry, a strong bond they consider a brotherhood. Now, they are facing their first test, overcoming the loss of a key player.
“This is a good group,” Dixon said. “Nobody’s getting arrested. They’re getting 3.0s. We’ve got a quality group. They care about each other and do the right things, on and off the floor. Don’t underestimate that.”
This isn’t the first time Pitt has dealt with a devastating injury during the season. In December 2007, small forward Mike Cook was lost for the remainder of his senior season after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus against Duke at Madison Square. The Panthers won that game on a last-second shot by his closest friend, point guard Levance Fields.
The very next game, against Dayton, Fields broke his foot and would miss much of the regular season. Freshman center DeJuan Blair emerged as a force until Fields returned late in the season, leading the Panthers to the Big East Tournament title. They would advance to the NCAA second round, setting the stage for a remarkable season in 2008-09, when they came within a Scottie Reynolds shot of reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history.
“We’ve had this before. We’ve had a lot, actually, where we’ve lost starters in the middle of the year,” Dixon said. “It’s happened way too often in the last four or five years. But we’ve handled it well, for the most part. We’ve got to limit it to one guy, that’s for sure.”
Pitt learned in December 2011 how difficult losing the wrong guy can be, when point guard Tray Woodall was lost to a groin strain and abdominal strain. Problem was, Pitt didn’t have another experienced player at the position and was forced to play shooting guard Ashton Gibbs at the point, with freshman John Johnson. The Panthers went on an eight-game losing streak, starting Big East play 0-7, and missed the NCAA tourney for the first and only time in Dixon’s tenure.
Big Shoes To Fill
So, in the absence of Johnson, who will step forward?
Dixon warned not to place pressure on one player, believing that Johnson’s role would be best filled by committee. The leading candidate for more minutes is Chris Jones, a 6-5 redshirt freshman. Three other newcomers could benefit: power forwards Mike Young, the starter, and backup Jamel Artis, as well as combo guard Josh Newkirk.
“All of the articles will talk about who’s got to do this, with the scoring, this and that,” Dixon said. “The minutes are going to come to certain guys, and they don’t have to change their game or do anything different.”
Jones’ points-per-minute average (.441) was almost identical to Johnson’s (.444) prior to the Georgia Tech game, when Jones was the first Panther off the bench but quickly drew two personal fouls and played only four minutes without so much as taking a shot. There could be a correlation between an increase in Jones’ playing time (5.9 minutes per game) and his scoring average (2.6 points) if his play remains consistent. Jones also had a better field-goal percentage (47.8 to 40.5) and free-throw percentage (92.3 to 85.3) than Johnson, who had a better three-point percentage (33.8 to 33.3).
“Chris, in his minutes played, was scoring at about the same rate that Durand was,” Dixon said. “He was shooting a good percentage. He just needs to play the way he’s played in practice and in games and he’s going to be out there more.
“The four freshmen are going to be playing more, given the situation. They don’t have to change what they’re doing. What they’re doing is fine. They’ll be out there longer, for longer periods of time, but no one has to reinvent themselves. They may score more points, and that will show up in stats, but the reality is if you look at minutes played they’re about the same. Hopefully, they’ll shoot the same percentages and do the same things over a longer period of time.”
What worried Dixon was replacing Johnson’s infectious enthusiasm for the game, the passion with which he practices and plays. The best the Pitt coach can hope for is a response similar to what Louisville did after losing top reserve Kevin Ware to a compound fracture in the NCAA Elite Eight, using it as inspiration to win the national championship.
“Durand is a talker in practice in a good way,” Dixon said. “He’s positive, he brings energy on the bench. Those are the things that I know he’s going to continue to do, but we need to have on the floor.
“There’s challenges. You may not notice in practice, may not notice as much in games for the people that are watching, but it’s beyond just the playing. There’s a void, but there can also be a way of inspiring or encouraging. Durand’s personality is a big part of our team, as well as his basketball attributes. I think we’ll fill that vacuum, that hole. I told guys, ‘I want you talking. I want you playing with passion. That’s the only thing you need to do differently.’”
One other thing Pitt doesn’t want to change is its recent success. Since losing to Cincinnati, 44-43, Dec. 17 in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, the Panthers have won six consecutive games.
Now, they have to continue doing it without one of their top players.
“We’ve been persevering all year,” Wright said. “It’s just another obstacle we have to overcome.”