Pitt reserve Durand Johnson draws a foul from Maryland's Shaquille Cleare in the second half at the Petersen Events Center Monday night.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt has won its first two ACC games and, after both, the opposing coach referred to how deep the Panthers are and how tough that makes them to play.
But it isn't just depth, as in a lot of capable players, that makes the Panthers tough, it is the fact that many parts are interchangeable and so many players are versatile.
And it is only going to get better for the Panthers (14-1, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) and worse for their opponents as coach Jamie Dixon increasingly gains trust in his four freshmen -- Michael Young, Jamel Artis, Josh Newkirk and Chris Jones -- and begins to use them in different roles.
Newkirk has been the key to this point. He clearly has become a player Dixon trusts to handle the ball and run the team in key situations and, as a result, he has started to play more alongside point guard James Robinson, giving the Panthers a true two-guard look.
That has enabled Dixon to experiment with a smaller lineup in which senior Lamar Patterson plays power forward. Such a lineup presents a matchup headache because it means one of the opponent's big guys must go to the perimeter to guard Patterson.
Dixon said all the bench players have improved; some, like Newkirk, more than others.
"Durand [Johnson] has gotten better, and looking [at Pitt's bench], Josh, Jamel was good in the second half, Chris did some good things for us and so did [transfer] Derrick [Randall], and I thought that was a key for us," Dixon said Monday after the Panthers 79-59 against Maryland at the Petersen Center.
"And [Josh] the last two games has been very good. He is a great kid and he wants to get better. He listens, he is a good decision-maker for a freshman and he has some great physical tools. But I also think we are getting better as a unit. We have10 guys, 11 if you count Joseph [Uchebo] now, but we have six new guys out of that 11, and that is a large number. So, what is exciting to me, is where we can be down the road if we keep improving."
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said the difference between the Terrapins and Panthers right now is Pitt's bench and what it enables Dixon to do in forcing matchups and giving opponents different looks.
He said that depth will make the Panthers a tough team to beat for any ACC team because few teams can match it.
"They are terrific, they are very deep," Turgeon said. "They are deep, they are physical, they can guard you and they have a different guy doing it every night."
Dixon said that a big reason for the Panthers success is all the reserves have embraced their roles. Not only has that been a theme of this team, but also the program in general -- unselfish play to win not to build personal statistics.
He pointed to Johnson as an example of a player who used to worry about scoring points but now has become a complete player who can contribute even when he doesn't score.
Patterson said the substitutes are important, not just because they give Dixon the flexibility for different looks and lineups, but it also enables them to keep fresh legs in the game.
Patterson said the ability to change combinations without a drop in production will help the Panthers wear teams down and win games in the end.
"We are a team that likes to grind people out," Patterson said. "We just want to be able to go for the full 40 minutes. In our last game, it showed, we got punched in the mouth in the beginning and came out in the second half and turned it up.
"We want to be a 40-minute team, and, if teams can't stay with us for 40 minutes, that is good for us."
Pitt added depth Monday when Uchebo, who has been out all season while recovering from a major knee injury, made his debut.
He played one minute and didn't look like was moving as well as he needs to in order to be useful as another big body off the bench, but Dixon said they will try to increase his role as his health improves.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 and Twitter: @paulzeise.
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