When Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has an NBA-caliber center, that player has his hands on the ball as much as the point guard. The inside-out approach yielded great success for Dixon early in his tenure when Chris Taft, Aaron Gray and DeJuan Blair starred for the team before moving on to the professional ranks.
Dixon hasn't had that luxury the past three seasons, and the lack of a scoring center last season finally caught up with the Panthers, who endured their first losing season in Big East play in a decade and missed the NCAA tournament.
Dixon has another potential NBA center in 7-foot freshman Steven Adams, and he plans to return to the formula that the Panthers used from 2003-09 when Big East championships and NCAA tournament victories were happening with regularity.
"We really want to get the ball inside," Dixon said. "That's something we've really emphasized this summer and fall. We have to be able to play out of inside touches, whether we're scoring or kicking it back out. We want to go inside-out. It's always been our strength. We need to develop our inside game early in the season and continue to grow with it."
It's probably not a coincidence that Pitt hasn't advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2009, Blair's final season with the Panthers before he left two years early for the NBA.
The Panthers found a way to win without much low-post scoring presence in 2009-10 and 2010-11, even winning a regular-season championship in '11.
That Big East championship team famously lost as a No. 1 seed in a second-round NCAA tournament game to No. 8 seed Butler.
Dixon's most successful NCAA tournament teams had centers that averaged in double figures in scoring. Taft averaged 12 points per game in his two seasons as a starter before he left two years early for the NBA. Gray followed and averaged 13.9 per game in his two seasons. Blair followed Gray and averaged 13.6 per game in his two seasons.
The highest scoring average for a center in the past three seasons was Gary McGhee, who averaged 6.9 per game in both his junior and senior seasons. The production bottomed out last season when Dante Taylor averaged 5.8 per game in his first season as a starter.
Taylor will be in the mix again for playing time at center, but the linchpin for Dixon's plans is Adams, who has gained the respect of his teammates during his brief time on campus.
"Steven is a big guy," junior small forward Lamar Patterson said. "He has a big frame, he's a hard worker, and he's skilled. It's benefitting our other guys to go against that type of player every single day, battling and fighting and getting better. There aren't that many guys who have Steve's height and body in this league. When game time actually comes, they won't be playing guys as good as Steve, and it'll be a lot easier for them. Once they get things going, it will open things up for the guards and me being able to create for our shooters. It will complete our game. It will make us better all around."
Taylor, who has battled back problems the past three seasons, said he is healthier than he has ever been at Pitt and hopes to become a more productive offensive player. The same goes for junior forward Talib Zanna, who averaged 6.3 points per game last season when he was a part-time starter at center and power forward.
"This year we're emphasizing it," Taylor said. "It will definitely help us out. Me and Steve and Talib, we've been having great practices playing against each other. It will help our offense out in terms of spacing and having us move around.
"I wouldn't say it was missing last season. We talked about it a lot. But certain times, we'd get in a game and we'd get away from it. We were trying to find a way to win. This year it will definitely be different."
Senior point guard Tray Woodall is so enthused about the prospects with Adams at center that he believes Adams is capable of being named Big East player of the year at season's end. Even if Adams falls short of that lofty goal, Woodall said a scoring threat in the post will make everyone else on the team more dangerous because opposing teams must respect him.
"Steven looks like he's a great decision-maker in the post," Woodall said. "It will give us a different look with a big guy like that. Dante and Talib have been working real hard on their low-post game, too. They look real effective down there.
"We want to work through those guys and open it up for the guards. Once we drive to the basket, big guys won't be able to step up on us anymore because we have effective bigs. It will make us that much more of an effective team."
• Game: Pitt vs. IUP in an exhibition game, Petersen Events Center.
• When: 7 p.m. Friday.
• TV: Comcast Channel 188 or 210.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published October 21, 2012 4:00 AM