BY WILL GRAVES
Tray Woodall found the note stashed in his locker recently, a not-so subtle message from the Pitt coaching staff. The note contained an article ranking college basketball’s top point guards. The senior scanned down until he found his name somewhere in the mid-30s.
If the coaches were looking to get a rise out of Woodall, it didn’t exactly work.
“I’m not in high school anymore,” he said. “It was cool back in the days to tell guys, ‘Yeah I’m Top 10’ ... it’ doesn’t even matter now.”
There are more pressing matters for Woodall these days than where he stacks up against his peers, namely returning the Panthers to their usual perch near the top of the Big East.
The road back begins today when Pitt hosts Mount St. Mary’s in the season opener. It is a chance for Woodall and his teammates to start moving forward after the most disappointing year of coach Jamie Dixon’s remarkably successful tenure.
Pitt went 22-17 last winter, but missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade. The Panthers managed to win the College Basketball Invitational, but don’t expect there to be a banner-hoisting ceremony.
Ask Woodall about what happened last year, and the letters “CBI” never escape his mouth. While the tournament allowed Pitt to end the season on an up note, the only image that sticks with Woodall are the games he sat out due to a lingering abdominal injury.
“I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth just because I missed so many games,” Woodall said. “I feel like I owe a lot of people. I feel like I missed so many games. I’m just ready to play in a whole season.”
So are the rest of the Panthers, who believe a dash of new faces will help return some of the swagger they lacked a year ago.
Dixon typically makes freshmen watch and learn early in the season before giving them a heavy workload, but guard James Robinson and center Steven Adams will both start as a reward for their attention to detail on defense.
“Right now they’re defending the best,” Dixon said. “We’ve just got to sustain it and keep everybody going. We’re going to play a lot of guys. I hope some guys (on the bench) make some strides, make some improvements.”
Robinson’s rise has pushed Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler to a reserve role and allowed Woodall a little more freedom on offense. Too often last season the Panthers looked lost offensively when the ball wasn’t in Woodall’s sure hands.
Those issues appear to be solved. Robinson didn’t turn the ball over once while playing 49 minutes during a pair of exhibition victories.
“We thought he’d be good, but he’s probably a little better than we thought going in with his quickness, his athleticism,” Dixon said. “His strength is probably something you don’t expect as a freshman.”
Playing two point guards also lets Dixon turn up the pressure defensively. Pitt has long been one of the best half-court defensive teams in the country. Dixon is adding a dash of full-court pressure to help the Panthers up the tempo.
Pitt was 269th in the country in turnover margin last season, a number that needs to improve considerably if the Panthers want to exit the Big East on top.
Pitt has won more conference titles – four regular season, two postseason – than any other Big East school since 2000, but is heading to the ACC next summer.
Woodall won’t be around when the transition happens. All he is focused on is restoring a sense of order after a season in which everything just felt out of whack.
“We’re all out to prove everybody wrong,” he said. “We want to exceed expectations and play beyond everybody else’s thinking.”
Playing better at home would help. Pitt was nearly unbeatable at the Petersen Events Center until last winter. The Panthers lost 12 times in the arena’s first nine years of existence. Last year they lost at home seven times. Dixon would love to see his team get back to making the “Pete” one of the more intimidating gyms in the country.
“There’s an edge, no question about it,” he said. “I think every team has an edge at this point. It’s just about how they handle adversity, who improves, who doesn’t. We’re excited about going forward here. We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of improvement to make and we better continue on that path.”