Pitt's Lamar Patterson shoots in front of Connecticut's Niels Giffey in the first half of the Panthers' 69-61 win Saturday.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Lamar Patterson played one of his best games of the season Saturday against Connecticut at Petersen Events Center. His stat line of 14 points, 5 assists, 3 steals, 1 block and 0 turnovers is the type of performance coach Jamie Dixon desires from his fourth-year junior.
Whether that performance came as a direct result of playing a season-low 18 minutes Wednesday against Villanova is not entirely known, but Patterson indicated watching reserve Durand Johnson play the starter's minutes at small forward against the Wildcats provided some extra motivation against Connecticut.
"The competition is good," Patterson said. "That's what you want. This is a college program. Everyone is good. Everyone got recruited for a reason. It wouldn't be right if you're not trying to get on the court. It makes you work harder and play better and value every minute they're out there."
Pitt improved to 3-3 in Big East Conference play with a 69-61 victory Saturday against the Huskies. This is not one of Dixon's most talented teams, but he has perhaps his deepest roster since becoming head coach in 2003. Dixon is using a 10-man rotation with a capable reserve backing up a starter at every position.
How comfortable is Dixon with his reserves? Well, for the fourth time in the past four games, one of the reserves played as many or more minutes than a starter in front of him.
• When James Robinson struggled at Georgetown, Cameron Wright came off the bench to play 26 minutes to Robinson's 19.
• In addition to Johnson playing 23 minutes to Patterson's 18 at Villanova, Trey Zeigler logged 25 minutes off the bench, the same number as Robinson.
• Against Connecticut, reserve center Dante Taylor played 20 minutes, the same number as starter Steven Adams.
"It's a testament to how deep we are," Taylor said. "We're all good players. We're all here for a reason. We all know we can play. Sometimes, guys can get frustrated by not playing much. With this team it's good. We're all positive no matter what.
"We all try to make the most of it when we're in the game. I try to encourage the guys and make the most of it. When you do that, the guys playing ahead of you feed off that. They see you're not pouting. We feed off the energy of our bench."
For the first time this season, it appears the reserves understand their roles. In the first half of the season, Zeigler and Johnson, both first-year players at Pitt, struggled to grasp Dixon's system. Since becoming more comfortable in recent weeks, they have played extended minutes.
Zeigler has played 23 minutes or more the past three games. He averaged 8.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and turned the ball over once in those games.
"I'm starting to fit in well," Zeigler said. "I'm able to show what I can do. That's the biggest thing right now. Just try to help the team when I can.
"Everyone is starting to figure out what we can do to be successful. For me, rebounding and making plays and just being ready whenever coach calls my number. Durand has done a good job. Cam will be ready when he's called upon. Dante was huge off the bench [Saturday]."
Dixon said he is using a 10-man rotation out of necessity rather than luxury. Each of the five reserves do something better than the starters or provide a different kind of boost for the team.
Taylor's ability to crash the offensive boards helped the Panthers beat Connecticut. Zeigler's ability to penetrate and score helped them beat Villanova. Johnson's 3-point shooting also helped against the Wildcats.
"Everyone is much more settled into their roles," senior guard Tray Woodall said. "Everyone knows the minutes they get. They come out and play aggressive and take advantage of their opportunity
"I think it's a testament to our depth. We have a lot of guys who work hard in practice and they're always ready when their number is called. A guy like [Zeigler], he played a little early on and he's been playing more as the year has gone on. He's been working real hard. Those guys work hard in practice and it shows on the court."
Another byproduct of the reserves pushing their way into the rotation is fresher legs for the starters. No one played more than 30 minutes against Connecticut, while three Huskies logged 31 minutes or more.
The same was true for the Villanova game. In both games, the Panthers found themselves tied with five minutes remaining. They outscored Villanova and Connecticut by a combined score of 29-8 in the final five minutes to pull away for victory.
"Coach is preaching to play hard and leave it all out there," Patterson said. "It's good to have people to keep pushing and push the tempo. Having guys come off the bench and know their role is awesome. I'm definitely looking forward to see how the season continues."