Pitt's new defensive emphasis -- turnovers

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When Jamie Dixon coached his best defensive teams in the early years of his tenure at Pitt, he stressed forcing bad shots rather than turnovers. Players were taught to play tight man-to-man defense and were discouraged to step into passing lanes because that weakened defensive positioning.

Dixon is bent on returning to the program's defensive roots after the Panthers posted their worst defensive statistics in more than a decade last season, but he plans to achieve that with a different twist.

Dixon is tweaking his defensive philosophy and would like to force opponents into more turnovers. Man-to-man defense remains the foundation, but the plan is to pressure opposing guards and double-team post players to create steals and transition scoring opportunities.

"It's something where we hope we're playing solid defense but also cause some turnovers which, hopefully, leads to some easier baskets in transition," Dixon said Wednesday night after practice. "It's not the first year we've emphasized it. We have good size and athleticism on the wings. Our big guys move pretty well. There are some things that we're doing that will allow us to get some more deflections, but that remains to be seen."

Dixon made turnovers a point of emphasis in the preseason, and his players appeared to adapt well to the new style. The Panthers forced 48 turnovers in the two exhibition games. Those turnovers were achieved against overmatched Division II opponents, but they hope to be able to do the same when the regular season begins Friday night against Mount St. Mary's.

  • Game: Pitt vs. Mount St. Mary's in 2012-13 season opener, Petersen Events Center.
  • When: 6 p.m. Friday.
  • Radio: KDKA-AM (1020).

"I love it," senior center Dante Taylor said. "Since I've been here, this is the first time I actually see us getting after it, taking pride in defense as far as on the ball pressure."

Dixon is taking advantage of his personnel. He is deep and talented at guard position and 7-foot center Steven Adams will serve as a big shot-blocking threat in the middle.

Under Dixon, the Panthers forced more than 500 turnovers only once in his previous nine seasons. In 2007-08, the Panthers forced 519 turnovers in 37 games, or 14 per game. Last season, they bottomed out and forced 431 in 39 games, or 11 per game.

Senior point guard Tray Woodall is enjoying the change in defensive approach.

"Obviously, it's different," Woodall said. "In past years, we just wanted to play solid defense and try to pack the lane. It depended on us playing solid defense, guys missing shots and our guys getting rebounds and getting it out and going.

"Now we want to pressure the ball a little more and force more turnovers because we have the big fella in the middle. We have athletic bigs who can block more shots, but, at the same time, we have guards who can be pesky at times."

It also might be a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. The top teams in the Big East Conference last season forced turnovers at a high rate. Regular-season champion Syracuse forced 591. Louisville forced 621 and Marquette, which finished second, forced 577. Fourth-place Cincinnati had 518.

Those teams also happened to be among the top offensive teams in the conference. Woodall believes it can be a big benefit for the offense.

"It will help our transition game because guys are ready to get out and run," Woodall said. "We have a lot of guys. We're a deep team. We're all in pretty good shape."

NOTE -- Dixon confirmed that freshmen Steven Adams and James Robinson will start in the opener. It is the first time Dixon has started two freshmen in an opener since becoming head coach in 2003.

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Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.


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