The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


October 29, 2013

Pitt basketball to adapt to ACC style

PITTSBURGH — Jamie Dixon means it this time. No, really, he does.

The Pittsburgh coach insists he’s not kidding when he says it might be time to loosen the reins as the Panthers move from the bruising and brutal Big East to the more wide open ACC.

“We’ll run a little better and be a little bit more skilled on the floor,” Dixon said. “I think we’ve got a good group and I think we’ve got a versatile group.”

One Dixon hopes can still bring the intensity on defense. Just because he’s more willing to let the Panthers get out on the open floor doesn’t mean he wants them entirely abandon the formula that made them perennial contenders in one of the nation’s toughest conferences, including a 24-9 mark last year.

The ACC figures to be just as tough, if in a slightly different way. The question, sophomore forward Durand Johnson said, might not be whether Pitt is ready for the ACC but whether the ACC is ready for the Panthers.

“We’re just used to being tough and having that mindset going into every game compared to teams that haven’t been coached like that, that haven’t been through the battles we have,” Johnson said. “That just gives us the upper hand.”

Maintaining it, however, is another matter entirely. The Panthers are going to have to score at some point if they want keep pace with ACC super powers Duke and North Carolina.

Where that scoring will come from is among the five big questions Pitt is pondering as it prepares for its season opener against Savannah State on Nov. 8:

Talib’s time: More than a few eyebrows were raised when center Steven Adams left Pitt after one uneven season with the Panthers. The move was validated when Oklahoma City made the 7-footer a lottery pick. His absence will force the Panthers to rely more on the athletic Talib Zanna. The 6-foot-9 senior from Nigeria lacks Adams’ physical presence but possesses long arms and loves to run the floor.

The key, however, will be how Zanna performs when the competition ramps up. He dominated nonconference play last season but disappeared when the calendar flipped to January. He only reached double figures in scoring in three of Pitt’s final 17 games.

Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood: Point guard James Robinson proved to be every bit the calming presence the Panthers needed to run Dixon’s motion offense last year. Now Dixon needs Robinson to do more than distribute the ball and be his team’s best perimeter defender. Dixon needs Robinson to score.

It’s something he did only sporadically as a freshman, but if Robinson wants to create space for the likes of Durand Johnson and Josh Newkirk, he knows he’ll have to make defenses step out to defend him. Robinson spent most of the summer working on his jumper. Dixon praised it for being more free flowing and less mechanical. Robinson is more concerned about whether it’s effctive.

Jumping Johnson: While Dixon had to practically beg Robinson to shoot the ball, there were no such problems with Johnson. The freshman was practically fearless last season, a trait that both endeared the athletic 6-foot-6 swingman to his coach and exasperated him at the same time.

Dixon would love for Johnson to become more than a spot-up shooter, and Johnson has the build and the athleticism to get to the rim. The Panthers have needed a slasher for years. Johnson might be the answer.

“He’s got to make good decisions and it’s something I think he’s improved at,” Dixon said. “I like where he’s at. He’s going to be a good player for us.”

Freshman frenzy: Cracking the lineup as a first-year player can be difficult at Pitt. Dixon puts a premium on defense, something it can take a full season or two to learn. Freshman Josh Newkirk, however, may be the exception. The 6-1 guard, who is from the same Raleigh, N.C., high school as NBA star John Wall, has wowed his teammates with his blurring speed and quick hands.

There’s a chance Newkirk could spend time on the floor alongside Robinson, a strategy that worked well at times last season when Robinson and senior Tray Woodall worked as co-point guards.

Selfish Patterson?: Senior forward Lamar Patterson might be Pitt’s best all-around player. It might be time for him to become one of its most selfish. Patterson is a stat box filler, averaging 9.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists over the last two seasons. He showed a flair for the dramatic last year, often finding the ball in his hands late in tight games.

It’s likely to happen again this winter as Pitt tries to establish its own identity in a crowded conference. Patterson has spent most of his career deferring to teammates. He’ll need to be the one deferred to if the Panthers want to make a splash.

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