Pitt completed the exhibition portion of its schedule Friday night with a 77-45 victory against Hawaii-Hilo at Petersen Events Center. The Panthers now begin counting down the days until the games really count.
The opener is Friday against Mount St. Mary's, and it appears coach Jamie Dixon is leaning toward starting two freshmen in an opener for the first time in his 10-year tenure at Pitt.
Dixon started the same lineup in both exhibition games. Freshman point guard James Robinson and freshman center Steven Adams, along with juniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna and senior Tray Woodall earned the right to start the exhibition games based on their ability to defend, Dixon said.
But Dixon would not fully commit to them being the starting five against Mount St. Mary's. Based on his answer it appears senior Dante Taylor is pushing Adams for the starting center job.
"Right now, I think they're the best defenders," Dixon said. "James and Tray have been the best guard defenders on the perimeter. Steve and Dante are neck and neck. I don't anticipate that being the starting lineup the entire year. I think Steve and Dante can be rotated in and out. Dante played well again [Friday night]. We got pretty good production from a lot of guys."
Zanna and reserve forward J.J. Moore led the Panthers with 13 points apiece as the Panthers jumped to an early lead and were never threatened by the Division II Vulcans.
Dixon saw a big jump in performance from an exhibition win a week ago against IUP and was most pleased with his guard play, especially Woodall, Robinson and reserve John Johnson, the third point guard who is playing like he wants a regular role in the rotation.
That trio combined for 22 points, 13 assists and 1 turnover.
"And they're defending pretty well, too," Dixon said. "Tray had eight assists and no turnovers. He played really well. I'm real excited about them. I really feel like we have three really good point guards at this point."
Johnson's play has been the biggest surprise. Dixon committed to switching him from shooting guard to point guard over the summer, and Johnson has responded better than he had anticipated. He had 7 points, 5 assists and 1 turnover in 17 minutes off the bench.
"John has made tremendous strides over the last 10 days," Dixon said. "It's tremendous strides. I don't think anyone thought he'd be where he is point guard-wise. But he's doing a great job, working hard and playing hard."
With Dixon stressing defense in the preseason, the offense has been a work in progress. The Panthers shot 44 percent from the field, but made only 4 of 14 shots from behind the 3-point arc. Dixon and the players have talked at length about getting the ball inside to Adams and Zanna and playing inside-out, but it has not yet played out that way in the games.
Adams, the Big East Conference preseason rookie of the year, did not score in the first half and finished with six points. He did grab 10 rebounds and had three blocks. Taylor had eight points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench.
"We've put in some new stuff, added some stuff and it hasn't flowed just right yet," Dixon said of the offense. "But that's to be expected this early. We still have a lot of things to figure out with our guys. But the effort is good. The energy has been good. We'll continue to improve."
Dixon did not seem overly concerned with Adams' play on offense. He was 2 for 6 from the field Friday night and 5 for 14 in the two exhibition games. Taylor, by contrast, is 7 for 9 from the field in the two games and averaging 8.5 points per game.
"We have to get him the ball more," Dixon said of Adams. "He's doing some good things. He's too unselfish is what it is. That's what we have right now. That's a good thing. That's a good thing to start with.
"It was good to see him knock down the free throws and get the 10 rebounds. He's doing fine. His biggest fault is he's too unselfish. We'll work with that. He's a great teammate. The guys love him. We're headed in the right direction. We're not there, but we're headed in the right direction."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1.