Christmas break set up great for Pitt

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Pitt coach Jamie Dixon was excited when he saw how the schedule set up because they got a long break from games during the Christmas vacation.

That meant he could give the players four days to go home for Christmas and spend some time at home. It also meant he could have five good days of practice before their final non-conference game of the season.

Dixon said the time gave the players a chance to get rested and spend some time with their families. The long stretch of practices enabled the players to get a lot of work on the areas they need to shore up.

“The thing that was different for us was these five days of practice at this time of the season, I don’t remember ever having that before,” Dixon said. “I don’t think we really have had it before so we kind of looked at it as a mini-training camp or a boot camp where we could get after some things.

“We did a lot of live stuff and we were able to get after it. I don’t know that we did enough live stuff going into this year, but we really wanted to and it was good. It was good for us on things we need to improve on defense and rebounding, specifically blocking out.

“We went hard, we had so many games in that stretch [in December] so we didn’t have a lot of good long practice days, but we were able to do that here in the last four days.”

The Panthers (11-1), whose previous game was Dec. 21, hope to put all of that extra rest and practice time to good use today when they play host to Albany (6-6) in a New Year’s Eve matinee.

The game is the final tune-up before the Panthers begin their inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference Saturday in Raleigh, N.C., against North Carolina State.

Dixon said under usual circumstances he might be concerned about his team’s focus on this game given what looms in the horizon, but he is confident his players are excited to play after being off for so long.

He said the practices have been intense and spirited, and that is a good sign the Panthers are ready to get back on the court and play games again.

“In certain situations looking ahead can be the case, but being as we haven’t played in 10 days and being away and the things we focused on, I don’t think that will be the case,” Dixon said. “I think we are excited about playing this game and I like how our schedule worked out. We played a lot of games in November and December and I didn’t feel great about it then as far as getting the practice time that we wanted.

“We didn’t feel we played well our last two games going into our Christmas break and I think our guys recognize that and came back with the attitude that they want to do something about it.”

As for the Great Danes, they are experienced team with three senior starters. But their two leading scorers are underclassmen — 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Peter Hooley (14.5 ppg) and 6-6 junior forward Sam Rowley (13.6 ppg).

Albany is big but they don’t rebound as well as their size would indicate. Dixon said they are very good at running offense and creating matchups that favor them. He said the Panthers against will be put to the test defensively because they move so well without the ball.

“We know the program well. They were in the NCAA tournament last year and have been at the top of their league the last few years and are expected to be there again. They are older, bigger and I’m surprised by their size,” Dixon said after seeing them walking through the Petersen Events Center. “Sometimes when you hear guys are 6-foot-8 they aren’t really that tall, but this team looks like it.

“They also have six international kids, but they are experienced and they are very fundamentally sound.”

The Great Danes are coming off a loss Dec. 23 to Drake (71-63) and they have one common opponent with Pitt — Duquesne. The Panthers beat the Dukes, 84-67, but Duquesne defeated Albany, 70-59.

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

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