Ron Cook: Offensive improvement key to Pitt's 7-0 takeoff

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In March, in its first game in the NCAA tournament, Pitt made just 1 of 17 3-point shots against Wichita State. Its two best shooters -- Tray Woodall and Lamar Patterson-- combined to make 2 of 19 shots. It was no surprise that Pitt came up so small and quickly was eliminated, 73-55.

As I walked out of EnergySolutions Arena that day in Salt Lake City, I remember thinking that Pitt could be a great team if it ever found a shooter or two and figured out how to add scoring to its determined defense and rebounding.

This might be the year.

I like this Pitt team.

It's early, sure. December just got here. The competition also hasn't been exactly fierce. That includes a game Saturday at Consol Energy Center against Duquesne, which lost to Pitt for the 13th consecutive year, 84-67. That completed a week in which Pitt (7-0) also beat Texas Tech and Stanford handily.

They don't hand out a trophy for what a team does in November, but that doesn't mean Pitt hasn't been remarkably effective.

It still might not have that one go-to guy -- Patterson, now a senior, has a chance to become him -- but scoring doesn't appear as if it will be a problem. Pitt is a faster team than last year. It is more athletic.

"We're averaging a lot of points," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.

81.7, to be exact.

"We scored a lot today and we really didn't shoot it well," Dixon said. "We shot 50 percent and didn't shoot well from 3. That's hard to do, but we did it."

It starts with Pitt's guards. James Robinson is a superb point guard and had nine assists and one turnover against Duquesne. He made only 2 of 8 shots, but his makes came on successive possessions in the second half and helped Pitt to pull away. Off guard Cameron Wright, the most-improved player on the team, had a strong line against the Dukes: 20 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, 2 assists and 2 blocked shots. Patterson also can slash to the basket and look for an easy layup, a foul or a kick-out pass.

Patterson made 1 of 4 3-point shots Saturday but was 14 of 25 in the previous four games. Robinson and Wright also can make a 3. So can Durand Johnson and Josh Newkirk off the bench. Pitt came into the Duquesne game shooting 40.7 percent on 3-point shots before making 3 of 16.

"We've got a lot of shooters," Patterson said. "We also have Talib [Zanna] down low, and he can finish. We're a well-balanced team. Coach knows that, and he puts us in the right positions."

Duquesne coach Jim Ferry certainly was impressed with Pitt. "They're a complete team."

Dixon won't argue that point. He likes Pitt's unselfishness. "These guys really like playing together," he said. "We have a smart team. They recognize things."

The two numbers that jumped off the stat sheet at Dixon Saturday were Pitt's 23 assists and 7 turnovers. "Those are amazing numbers. It doesn't matter where, who, what league, the NBA, whatever."

Dixon pointed to a play in the final seconds when Patterson passed up a good shot to find teammate Chris Jones for a better one. Of course, Jones made it.

"It's late in the game, and no one is looking for his [shot]," Dixon said.

Pitt is even shooting free throws better, if you can believe that. It made 15 of 21 against Duquesne and has shot 76.2 percent for the season. "If they're going to foul us, we're going to make them pay," Patterson said.

Pitt's rebounding always will be there. It outrebounded the much smaller Dukes, 26-13, in the second half. "I think we got worn down," Ferry said. "They come at you with so many bodies. They're relentless."

Duquesne's quickness hurt Pitt at times, especially on one-on-one drives to the basket. "If they get to the line 35 times like they did, then we're doing something wrong," Dixon said. "We're going to work on that."

I trust Dixon.

Defense seldom is a problem at Pitt.

It would help if Pitt still had 7-footer Steven Adams at the back of its defense, but he left for the NBA as a first-round pick in the spring after just one season. Surely, Pitt would be ranked in the top 10 if it had Adams, who is averaging 4.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 18 minutes a game for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Pitt isn't ranked yet.

Dixon isn't afraid to march forward with the players he has. A game with Penn State Tuesday night at Petersen Events Center is next. That should be great theater. Pitt's first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference is dead ahead.

Pitt was one of the more dominant teams in the powerful Big East Conference during the Dixon era and should hold its own in the even more powerful ACC. It will be a huge surprise and disappointment if Pitt doesn't return to the NCAA tournament in the spring.

Pitt still has much work to do before it's a great team, but it's only Dec. 1. It's going to be interesting to watch it develop during the next three months.

It should be great fun to watch it play in March.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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