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.
Jamie Dixon means it this time. No, really, he does.
Blairsville pegged as team to beat
As Heritage Conference football coaches assembled at United High School during Wednesday’s media day event at Thomas J. Madill Field, the near-consensus opinion is that Blairsville – under second-year coach Rick Artley – is going to be the team to beat once the season begins on Aug. 29.
After the Bobcats, the forecasted picture gets a little foggier.
Baserunning blunder helps Giants end six-game losing streak
Clint Hurdle says he and a pal often marvel over how there’s always something new to see at a baseball game.
Too bad for Hurdle. What he watched Wednesday wrecked the Pittsburgh Pirates in a 7-5 loss.
Rookie linebacker making impression at Steelers camp
Ryan Shazier grew up the football equivalent of a Rorschach test.
Some coaches looked at Shazier’s 6-foot-1 frame with plenty of room to grow and saw a defensive end.
- Who's on your AAABA Mount Rushmore?
Greene’s No. 75 will be retired at Ravens game
Joe Greene’s No. 75 now belongs to the ages.
The Pittsburgh Steelers announced Wednesday the team will retire the Hall of Fame defensive end’s number during a game against the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 2.
- Owner of Penguins practice rink faces tax charges
Bell planning to do better
Le’Veon Bell kept watching the tape over and over, equal parts pleased and puzzled by what he saw.
There were times during his rookie season when the Pittsburgh Steelers running back would place his hand on an offensive lineman’s back and wait patiently for the hole to open.
- Boilers advance in Pony series
NCAA settles head-injury suit, will change rules
The NCAA agreed Tuesday to settle a class-action head-injury lawsuit by creating a $70 million fund to diagnose thousands of current and former college athletes to determine if they suffered brain trauma playing football, hockey, soccer and other contact sports.
Big Ten commissioner voices support for Penn State's handling of Sandusky situation, non-committal on reducing sanctions
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany took a non-committal stance on an effort by five Pennsylvania Congressmen to rescind sanctions against Penn State for its handling of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.
- More Sports Headlines
- Blairsville pegged as team to beat