Freshman Khem Birch will get an opportunity to play center and power forward because of the injury to Nasir Robinson.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On the eve of the first practice of the season, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon disclosed Thursday he will be without one of his two returning starters for the next month.
Nasir Robinson, a two-year starter who averaged 9.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per game last season, will have surgery this morning on his right knee. Dixon estimates the injury will keep Robinson out of practice for 3-4 weeks.
Robinson said he heard the knee "pop" Tuesday in a workout. Dixon said a preliminary MRI did not show a tear of any kind, but the extent of the injury will not be known until surgery is performed.
"I just turned it a little bit and felt something pop," Robinson said Thursday at the team's media day at Petersen Events Center. "They're going to take a look at it and do what they have to do."
All indications are that Robinson has an injury to his meniscus, Dixon said. If that is the case, it will be the second time in a year that Robinson injured the meniscus in his right knee. He had surgery to repair the same meniscus a year ago and missed the first three regular-season games.
Robinson said he hopes to be ready for the Nov. 11 season opener against Albany.
"It feels the same way as last year," Robinson said. "I'll see what the doctors tell me and take my time to come back 100 percent. I don't want to sit out. I hate sitting out. It's definitely frustrating. I'm just going to do what I have to do to get back healthy."
Talib Zanna, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, will step into the vacated starting position at power forward. Zanna started the first 13 games at power forward last season before Robinson reclaimed his job once Big East Conference play began.
"It's an opportunity to bring a lot to the table," Zanna said. "Last year I started out good, and I just went downhill. This year I have to pick it up fast and be ready to go."
Zanna scored 38 points in the first four games last season, including consecutive double-figure scoring games against North Florida and Maryland. But in the final 23 games Zanna played, he scored 60 points and was kept off the score sheet nine times.
Zanna said he lost confidence once Robinson reclaimed the starting power forward position.
"Maybe I put my head down some," Zanna said. "I just have to get my head up and keep playing."
Robinson's injury also presents an opportunity for Pitt's three centers to get some playing time at power forward in the preseason. Junior Dante Taylor, who is expected to start at center, and freshmen Khem Birch and Malcolm Gilbert will get an opportunity to play until Robinson returns.
"I'm going to do both," said Birch, a 6-9 McDonald's All-American who is expected to contribute immediately. "Coach told me to take advantage of him being out. Now it's time to learn. It is exciting. That is my future position."
In the past, Dixon has allowed freshmen to concentrate on one position so they were not overwhelmed from a mental standpoint. He hinted that might be the case again, although he did tweak his offensive system over the summer which will allow more flexibility than seasons past.
"Khem, Dante and Malcolm can all play together," Dixon said. "We've been working on that. We try to keep those spots a little more similar in what they can do. We had been looking at that in the offseason for situations just like this.
"All of those guys always played center their entire basketball career. Playing more on the perimeter will be an adjustment. Usually the older guys handle it better. With younger guys, it's a huge adjustment."
That's why, if Robinson's injury forces him to miss games, Dixon is likely to turn to versatile sophomore Lamar Patterson to move down into the frontcourt. Patterson has played power forward previously and with success.
"Lamar has played that spot before," Dixon said. "He's given us minutes there. He has the versatility and smarts to handle a couple of spots. Our anticipation is [the injury to Robinson] will be up until the first week in November. We'll play an exhibition game or so without him."
NOTE -- Dixon said Pitt will play in the 2013 Legends Classic in Brooklyn and the 2014 Maui Invitational. It had been previously announced that the Panthers would play in the 2012 Preseason NIT.