Pitt coach Jamie Dixon had only five returning players, so he knew he would need to get lots of help from at least a few of his freshmen if the Panthers were going to have success.
There obviously was some risk involved, because there is no guarantee freshmen will be ready to play and contribute right away and it may take some time for them to figure things out at the college level.
But through 10 games, it has become pretty clear that this group of four freshmen, forwards Jamel Artis and Mike Young and guards Josh Newkirk and Chris Jones, have proven to be mature beyond their years and have given the Panthers the depth they have needed.
Saturday in a 91-73 win against Youngstown State, all four contributed to the win and Dixon said it shouldn’t be a surprise that they are playing so well because all four have a great work ethic to match their talent and skill level.
Young, for instance, is a starter and had 10 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists despite splitting time with Artis, who had 5 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists.
That means from the power forward spot, a spot that was a question coming into the season, the Panthers got 15 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. On the season, the two combine to average 13 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists and 38 minutes, and those are strong numbers from one position.
Young said he believes all of the freshmen have improved and mostly because they have had the opportunity to learn how to compete and win from veterans such as Lamar Patterson, James Robinson, Cameron Wright and Talib Zanna.
“I feel like me, Josh and Jamel are settling in well,” Young said. “Both in games and practices, I feel like we are getting more used to the game. Both in practices and games I feel like we are really starting to come along. We try to get better every day and still have a lot to improve on.
“When you have guys like [the team’s four veterans] who are pushing you every day, you have no choice but to get better. You have to come to practice with an open mind, and when you do that it gives you a lot of opportunity to get better.”
Newkirk, who had 9 points, 2 assists and 1 steal in 19 minutes against the Penguins, according to Dixon, has gotten better seemingly every game and has gotten more opportunities to handle the ball and run the team for crucial stretches of games.
Jones has been a little behind the other three, but mostly because of limited opportunity. The two positions he fits into best are manned by Patterson and Wright, two of the team’s most experienced players.
Dixon has said he likes Jones’ athleticism and offensive ability but, like most freshmen, he still needs to improve on defense, as all of them do.
“Offensively, I do feel like [the freshmen] are really doing a great job and like I said, they are good, they are very skilled offensively,” Dixon said. “But they have to keep getting better defensively as a group. That takes time, it is not easy, but we don’t have time to wait for them as we are relying on them to contribute and we’re a team that is trying to do some big things this year.
“I think if you look at the minutes they are playing and the roles they are in, it is pretty clear they are going to be a big part of whatever we do this year. And I’d include [Rutgers transfer] Derrick [Randall] in that group, as well, as he is a new player that has come along well.”
Pitt’s freshmen will get a big test Tuesday on a big stage against Cincinnati at Madison Square Garden in New York in a Jimmy V Classic game.
Young said the group is looking forward to the challenge, and the prospect of playing away from Petersen Events Center isn’t quite as daunting to them since they played in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y., a few weeks ago.
“For us freshmen, we played a game at the Barclays Center which was a big stage for the first time,” Young said. “Playing Texas Tech and Stanford, who are good teams, was big for us freshmen. I think that will give us a little confidence for the Cincinnati game that we have on Tuesday, which is at the Garden.”
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 or Twitter @paulzeise.