Most teams would detest a nine-day layoff in the midst of a six-game winning streak. But for the surging Pitt Panthers, the time between game Jan. 4 at Cincinnati and a matchup at Connecticut tomorrow was used as an extended chemistry experiment.
Pitt is a team in transition since Gilbert Brown and Jermaine Dixon returned to the lineup in late December. And even though the Panthers performed extremely well in the four games since the tandem rejoined the team there is still a sense that there is room for growth.
"The consistent practice time we put in, getting up and down the court, scrimmaging each other, just getting to know each other more than we did was important," said Brown, who scored a career-high 17 points against Cincinnati. "I only played four games and Jermaine seven, so it's really helped us get together as a team."
Brown and Dixon have changed the team dramatically. In the four games Brown and Dixon have played together, Pitt is averaging 73.8 points per game, shooting 48.8 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from 3-point range. In the 11 games when they were not in the lineup together, Pitt only averaged 65.6 points, shot 43.9 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point range.
Brown and Dixon are two of the better defenders on the team, and there has been a noticeable difference at the defensive end as well. Teams are shooting a lower percentage from the field. And although teams are scoring more, the caliber of competition is much different from what the Panthers faced earlier in the season.
Those statistics figure to improve as they get used to playing together more.
"You can say [the break in the schedule] came at a good time," junior guard Brad Wanamaker said. "[Brown and Dixon] have been looking good the last couple of games. It gave us more time to get better as a team, getting more comfortable playing with those two guys."
Pitt has dealt with long breaks in the schedule in previous seasons. Coach Jamie Dixon made the most of the long layoff by scheduling a competitive scrimmage Saturday with officials.
"It is what it is, so you just make the best of it," Dixon said. "You think about the guys who are redshirting and try to get those guys developed. The big thing is we're looking forward to practice every day, that it's an opportunity. It is fun for us to work with the guys who haven't been playing as much as the guys who are playing. It's something we've always emphasized. I like practice and our players like practice. It's an opportunity, not a detriment."
Pitt (13-2, 3-0) is one of two remaining teams in the Big East Conference without a loss in league play. Villanova (15-1, 4-0) is the other after it defeated Louisville, 92-84, last night at Freedom Hall.
The Panthers were picked to finish ninth in the conference in a preseason poll of the leagues coaches, but they are swiftly making believers out of skeptics. They moved up seven spots in The Associated Press poll to No. 16 yesterday after making their season debut in the rankings last week.
"I learned that this team is really tough and mentally strong," Brown said. "We have a young group and not a lot of people expected a lot out of us. But we have high expectations for ourselves. I feel like we drive ourselves. The young guys are pushing the older guys to perform at a high level. Coach has played a big part in pushing us and making us the team we are now."
The Connecticut game is the final game of three consecutive contests on the road, a scheduling quirk that does not happen every season. Pitt only has played three consecutive Big East games on the road on 11 other occasions since joining the conference in 1982.
If the Panthers can defeat the Huskies they will be the first Pitt team to win all three games.
PITT vs. CONNECTICUT • 7 P.M. TOMORROW
XL CENTER, HARTFORD, CONN. • TV: ESPN2
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1230. First Published January 12, 2010 5:00 AM