Pitt coach Jamie Dixon was encouraged by the Panthers pushing around Villanova and controlling the boards Wednesday night, and for good reason. Villanova dominated its first three Big East opponents in rebounding while the Panthers struggled mightily in that department.
The Panthers were beaten on the boards in all three of their losses and entered the game against the Wildcats, the best rebounding team in the Big East, with a minus-3.7 rebounding margin.
Not only did the Panthers come away with a plus-12 margin on the boards, but the Wildcats, also the top offensive rebounding team in the league, were limited to one offensive rebound and zero second-chance points.
Dixon spent most of his preparation time in practice preaching about the importance of controlling the boards, and his message finally got through to his players.
"It's no secret what you have to do in our league," Dixon said. "You have to be able to rebound. For whatever reason, in our losses, we didn't rebound. You have to play to your strengths. If you don't, you end up coming up short."
With its post players struggling to rebound, Pitt's guards were the biggest reason for the lopsided edge against the Wildcats:
• Freshman James Robinson, the 6-foot-3 starting point guard, had more rebounds than 7-foot center Steven Adams.
• Trey Zeigler, a 6-5 reserve guard, led the team with six rebounds, three times as many as 6-9 starting power forward Talib Zanna.
• Senior guard Tray Woodall grabbed five rebounds and Cameron Wright one, bringing the contributions of Pitt's four guards to 16 -- the same number the six centers and forwards provided.
It might not be conventional, but without a dominant low-post rebounder, the team effort on the backboards might be the ticket for success.
"It seemed like we got every rebound down the stretch," Dixon said. "That's what we need. We've had some games where we haven't done that. Hopefully, this is a big step in that direction."
It would appear defense and rebounding will be important for the Panthers because the offense is not producing much. The Panthers shot 37 percent and struggled to get open shots in their half-court offense once again. That they managed to win by 15 points on the road was directly attributable to locking up the Wildcats and dominating the glass.
"We really showed what we can do with rebounding and defense," Zeigler said. "That's something Coach stressed. We have to keep a consistent effort with that. If we get our guards rebounding the way we did today and keep playing defense, the offense will come."
Zeigler played 25 minutes off the bench. Dixon told him before the game to be ready to play a lot because he had a feeling he would be able to help the team rebound. The same held true for Durand Johnson -- 6-6 -- another tall reserve guard.
Johnson, who played 23 minutes, did not get a rebound against Villanova, but has shown an ability to rebound in other games. He had four rebounds against Georgetown and three in the overtime loss to Marquette.
"They're playing better and better and trying to understand what we're trying to do," Dixon said of Zeigler and Johnson. "I continually stressed defense and rebounding is the secret to playing time. Maybe it takes time for some guys to figure it out. It's a whole other level to how you play in high school or somewhere else. It's not even comparable. It takes some time. You can preach it, but they have to go through the growing pains."
The Panthers are 2-3 in Big East play entering Saturday's home game against Connecticut. Dixon thought his team had things figured out after a 28-point road victory last week, but the Panthers came home and followed that with an overtime loss to Marquette last Saturday.
"I wish we had it figured out from day one," Dixon said. "It's a process. We're finding ourselves. I wish it was figured out in September and October. But that's why we play and practice. I hope this is something we can build off of."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.