When games were on the line late last season, Pitt forward Lamar Patterson is the player coach Jamie Dixon trusted. When it counted most, Patterson was the guy with the ball in his hands and he came through in some critical situations for his teammates.
Patterson was the driving force behind several late-season victories in the College Basketball Invitational. He broke a tie in an overtime game at Butler to help the Panthers earn a spot in the CBI championship series.
In Game 2 of the series against Washington State, Patterson once again broke a late tie with a clutch jumper that forced a Game 3. He was named the tournament MVP after averaging 13.3 points, 6 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the six games.
Patterson, a 6-foot-5 forward, followed that up with a strong summer and earned the MVP of the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am. All signs pointed toward a breakout junior campaign.
That could still happen, but Patterson is lagging way behind his scoring pace from a season ago. Through the first three games, Patterson is averaging 2.7 points per game, which is last among Dixon's 10-player rotation. He was the team's fourth-leading scorer last season with a 9.6 average.
"It's still early," Patterson said Thursday evening after practice. "Our games haven't been close. I'm letting some other guys get their feet wet. My scoring isn't necessary right now. I'm going to keep playing my game and keep hitting the open guy."
Even though Patterson's numbers are down across the board, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has a made point after each game to mention Patterson and how well he played.
"His numbers don't stand out, but he's played really well in these three games," Dixon said. "He has assists, he's unselfish, plays good defense. I think he's played really well. He's going to be overlooked a bit, but he's playing really good basketball. We're using the term hockey assist. He's a guy who's getting a lot of those. He's making that pass that leads to the assist."
Dixon has always talked about Patterson's intangibles and how his worth to the team was hard to measure. He said that about him when he was a freshman and continues to speak in those terms now.
Patterson did not score in Pitt's opener against Mount St. Mary's, but in his opening remarks at his postgame news conference, Dixon spoke glowingly about his zero point, 1 rebound, 4 assist night. If it was any other player, one might be skeptical of such remarks.
If Patterson is bothered by the new role, he isn't showing it. After averaging 7.7 shots per game last season, he is taking only three per game this season. Only senior Dante Taylor has taken fewer shots.
Freshman Durand Johnson, who has only played 27 minutes, has more shots and has scored twice as many points.
"As long as these guys are getting their shots and hitting them, it's perfect," Patterson said. "We're winning games by  points. I like how this team looks. I feel great about this season."
Pitt will play host to Oakland Saturday night before departing Monday for the NIT Tip-Off tournament at Madison Square Garden, where the Panthers will play No. 5 Michigan in a semifinal game. The Panthers have won their first three games by 30.7 points per game. The closest margin of victory has been 25.
Patterson might have had a good statistical season as a sophomore, but he did it in a season when the team missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade. As one of the leaders of the team, Patterson said he is trying to impart to the younger players to play with an edge, something he believes was missing last season.
"Last year a lot of people said we played soft," Patterson said. "We lost a lot of games I feel like we should have won, but we didn't have that toughness. This year I feel like we have it. We take pride in defense a lot more."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published November 16, 2012 5:00 AM