Pitt senior Tray Woodall can remember his first media day at Pitt like it was yesterday. He showed up for his first interaction with local reporters with a busted lip and stitches, courtesy of an elbow from Sam Young.
Woodall learned very early about the physical nature of Pitt's practices under Jamie Dixon, and it was a lesson he had been thinking about in recent days as his fifth and final season is about to get under way.
Woodall is attempting to come back from a debilitating sports hernia that marred his junior season. He missed 11 games in the middle of last season and was not completely healthy when he returned for the final 20 games.
Woodall had surgery in April to repair the hernia, and he only began to fully participate in offseason workouts within the past two months.
"Of course, it will be in the back of my head that I was injured," Woodall said. "But when you're on the court, you don't think of what can happen to you. Even last year when I was hurt I was still diving on the floor and still taking charges. You're out there playing the game of basketball. You're out there sacrificing your body. That's what you have to do. Coach Dixon always stresses putting your face in there. I remember my freshman year I had a big lip from an elbow. I'm just going to keep playing the game of basketball. That's what I do."
It has been a difficult injury to overcome. Woodall attempted to play the second half of last season without participating in practices. The only way he was able to play in games was by taking pain-killing injections.
Recently, after he had been cleared to return, he held himself out of one strength and conditioning session because his groin and abdomen were sore.
Dixon is hoping he has Woodall at his disposal for an entire season. The Panthers fell apart without him last season, going 5-13 in Big East play and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.
Dixon tried three different lineups when Woodall was injured. Cameron Wright, John Johnson and Isaiah Epps started in his place, but the Panthers struggled without their leader. They were 5-7 without Woodall, including six consecutive losses to open Big East play.
Woodall said he is 100 percent healthy and ready for the season. His one missed strength and conditioning session came three weeks ago, and he said he skipped it because he was still in the process of understanding how his body felt after the surgery.
"This is a new injury to me," he said. "I never had surgery before. It was not pain but a different feeling I've been having. I'm fine, though. It was just me being safe. I'm 100 percent. I'm good. It wasn't pain. It was soreness."
Dixon does not like to play players who do not practice. He made an exception last season because Woodall was in so much pain, and the team had struggled so much in his absence. Having Woodall on the court as the team begins preparations for the Nov. 9 season opener against Mount Saint Mary's is important for Dixon.
"We didn't have that at all last year for practice," Dixon said. "I hope that continues. Obviously, it's an injury you always worry about flaring up or coming back again. At this point, he's been doing a lot of things. I have to give him credit. He's in there early, a couple of hours before practice, getting the treatment and things that are necessary. It's been good. He's practiced well. He's done the conditioning. That's been great for him."
If Woodall gets injured again this season, Dixon is better prepared to fill his role. Epps had been expected to be the backup point guard last season, but he was not ready for that role. He transferred over the summer.
One of Dixon's three freshmen is a point guard, James Robinson, a consensus top 75 player in the country and one of the top 10 incoming point guards.
"We think James is very good," Dixon said. "We also think John Johnson will play some point for us. We have three guys we'll count on and work with. James has really developed physically and mentally. I feel good about that. John gives us good quickness. He played a lot of minutes and that will help them."
Woodall isn't counting on needing much help from them, though. He is determined to get back to the form he showed last season before he was injured against Duquesne. In the first seven games last season Woodall was averaging 14.1 points, 8.2 assists and shooting 45 percent from 3-point range.
Woodall's scoring, assists and shooting percentage all declined after he returned from his injury. He finished the season averaging 11.7 points, 5.1 assists and 38.6 from 3-point range.
"It was frustrating last year, not being able to do some of the things I wanted to do," he said. "It feels great to go out and play my game and be the player I know I am. Last summer, I worked extremely hard and showed everyone that I can play my game. Me being where I am now, it's giving me another opportunity to do the things I know what I can do."
Woodall said he feels as good as he did last year at this time.
"When I say I'm 100 percent, I'm 100 percent because I'm out here doing some of the moves I was doing before I got hurt," he said. "I feel I can do pretty much everything. I'm up to speed. I'm not a step slow. I feel just as fast. I'm ready to go."
NOTES -- J.J. Moore, who had surgery to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his foot, said he is 100 percent healthy and ready for the season. ... Pitt will stage an outdoor Midnight Madness event tonight on Bigelow Boulevard. It will begin at 10 p.m. after a fireworks and laser show. ESPNU will have coverage from the event.
• When: 10 p.m. today.
• Where: Cathedral of Learning/Bigelow Boulevard.
• TV: ESPNU, ESPN3.com.
• Note: Admission is free and open to the public.
First Published October 12, 2012 4:00 AM