Pitt basketball relies on new blood

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Pitt had five returning players from last season and has had to rely on five new ones -- four freshmen and a transfer -- to play prominent roles or provide depth this season.

Coach Jamie Dixon knew that meant the Panthers would have a learning curve and, through 12 games, he has seen enough improvement in his team to believe they have an opportunity to become a good team by March.

After the Panthers 73-56 win Saturday against Cal Poly, Dixon reiterated that, although the Panthers still have a long way to go, he is encouraged by the good things they have done in every game as well as the areas they have improved each week.

But he knows the Panthers only have one more non-conference game, Dec. 31 against Albany, to get things right, so he said this is a critical week.

Dixon gave the players the next three days off, and they will return to practice Thursday to clean up some areas they haven't been as sharp as he would like.

"We have to do some things better, we know that," Dixon said. "We have to rebound better, it is still not the level we need to and we know that. There are a lot of practices coming up after we get back from the break, and I'm looking forward to that.

"We just have to recognize that we have to make some improvements, a lot of improvements. I've said I think we have the pieces in place. I know people tell us we are young, but we can do this if we just make that commitment to get better."

Dixon's two main areas of concern with the first season of ACC play right around the corner, are defense and rebounding because the Panthers have been inconsistent in both.

That is not like Dixon-coached Pitt teams.

Pitt (11-1) was outrebounded by eight in a loss last week against Cincinnati. Against Cal Poly, the Panthers won the rebounding battle but only by 36-28, which is short of Dixon's goal of outrebounding teams by 12 to 15.

Defensively, the Panthers gave up some easy 3-pointers early that allowed Cal Poly to hang around longer than Dixon would have liked.

Pitt led, 37-34, with 14:30 to play but clamped down on defense the final 14 minutes and coasted to a comfortable win.

Dixon said there have been too many stretches where the Panthers have had breakdowns on defense, either in guarding the perimeter or guarding against penetration by opposing players with the ball.

Saturday, he emphasized guarding the deep 3-pointer against the Mustangs but was frustrated in the first half because the Panthers were slow to get to the spot to take away those shots.

"Defensively, we did some good things but we just had too many breakdowns, especially guarding the 3-pointer," Dixon said.

"We have to get better, we understand that, we obviously have the five new guys and we knew that would be a challenge but we have some older guys who are just breaking down defensively, too, and so we have to make strides and get better there.

"You are going to have some breakdowns, but we are having too many right now. We are not following our rules defensively, we are not sticking to our assignments and, like I said, it is not just the new guys."

Dixon said that tough loss against Cincinnati provided some good lessons. One was the importance of hanging tough when things aren't going well, another was the importance of rebounding.

He said had the Panthers rebounded better against the Bearcats, they likely would have won.

Furthermore, he believes his players must dominate the boards to have a chance to succeed.

"I mentioned patience [after the Cincinnati game]," Dixon said. "If things aren't going well, we cannot let it affect us."

■ Game: Pitt (11-1) vs. Albany (6-5) in final non-conference game, Petersen Events Center.

■ When: 1 p.m. Dec. 31.

■ Internet: ESPN3.

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1720 or Twitter: @paulzeise

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