The Pitt basketball program under Jamie Dixon has been built on tough man-to-man defense, rebounding and efficient offense.
Two of those three pillars always will remain intact. Tuesday, however, the Panthers showed that the first one — tough man-to-man defense —might have to be modified at any given time, even though it will remain, as Dixon said, the team’s “bread and butter.”
And, although the words “man-to-man” might some days change to “zone,” Dixon made it clear Thursday that the “tough” and “defense” always will remain synonymous with the Panthers, regardless of the scheme.
Such a discussion came up Tuesday after Pitt played a 2-3 zone almost exclusively in a 75-54 win against Fresno State at the Petersen Events Center after they started the game in the man-to-man. The Panthers quickly changed to zone when it was clear they would have a hard time matching up with the Bulldogs’ four-guard offense.
Dixon said the Panthers always have tried to mix in some zone, but he added that this team will play more of it than any of his previous teams for two important reasons — the new emphasis by referees on calling fouls and the presence of suitable personnel to not only use a zone, but also play it extremely well.
Still, he said that even though some zone defense will be good for this team and might help it survive early in the season, it never will be Pitt’s primary defense. Furthermore, he said players who want to get on the court in his program still must learn how to guard a man.
“The difference in this team is we have guards that rebound well, good-sized guards, and I think [the zone] fits us a little bit better in that regard,” Dixon said. “We are still pretty aggressive with it, we get a lot of turnovers out of it, and it is something that we been using all year long. And we used it last year for periods of time.
“You change with the game and you change with the personnel you have. We have to get better in our man-to-man defense, that is going to be our bread and butter and we have improvements to make, but I anticipated that. The big guys haven’t quite gotten to where we need them to be, but we have got to get them to that point.”
Dixon talked about the personnel fitting the zone, too. With James Robinson (6 feet 3), Cameron Wright (6-4), Durand Johnson (6-6) and Lamar Patterson (65), they certainly can put two or three big guards on the floor at a time.
Add to that the athleticism and versatility of forwards Johnson, Patterson, Jamel Artis (6-7) and Michael Young (6-8), and there is little doubt the Panthers could make life miserable for opposing offenses if they play the zone well.
The zone was very effective in the first half against the Bulldogs, but it started to spring some leaks in the second, and Dixon said there were a few things that jumped out on film that need to be fixed.
“Against the zone, they attacked the high post more, and that’s where they hurt us in the second half,” Dixon said. “Once in a while they are going to get it in there, but it came too often, and we didn’t adjust well enough or understand.”
Dixon also noted the Panthers’ lack of intensity on defense in the second half, but he was pleased with the way they rebounded out of the zone. They allowed five offensive rebounds, none in the first half. Dixon said defensive rebounding can be a liability in a zone if a team isn’t committed to going up and getting the ball.
“There is give and take with everything you do,” Dixon said “We always talked about zone being an issue on the offensive glass, but it is something we are working on every day and something we need to focus on when we play zone.”
Center Derrick Randall said that along with playing to their strengths, a zone will help keep the Panthers’ big men out of foul trouble because they won’t be asked to get to the perimeter. Randall also said he liked the 2-3 zone because “you use less energy on defense” which, not surprising, was a sentiment that Dixon was not excited to hear.
“I don’t agree with that, and we just watched film and pointed out some areas where he could use a little more of that energy,” Dixon said, with a laugh.
“Obviously, he is not out guarding on the ball screens and that is always the challenge on the big guys as they haven’t had to do it in high school. They do a lot of sitting in zones, so they are kept out of foul trouble.
“What he has to do is find areas where he can use the same energy and same focus [as playing man], maybe not guarding on the perimeter but your level of intensity and concentration remains the same.”
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.