Pitt's Durand Johnson will be missed during the ACC schedule.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt will take the court as a top-25 team for the first time this season tonight when they face Georgia Tech in an ACC game at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.
The Panthers (15-1, 3-0) are No. 21 in the USA Today Coaches poll and No. 22 in the Associated Press poll.
But the rankings aren't the primary concern for the Panthers, who will be playing their first game without redshirt sophomore forward Durand Johnson, who will be out for the rest of the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Johnson (6 feet 6) was injured Saturday in Pitt's 80-65 win against Wake Forest, so the Panthers have had two days to come up with a plan to replace their "sixth man" and most important reserve.
He averaged 8.8 points and 3 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game, and Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said that, while Johnson's contributions on the court are going to be tough to replace, the intangibles he brought to the court every day will be missed more.
"I feel bad for Durand. He had worked so hard to really make himself a more complete player, he did everything we asked in the offseason and now he has to sort of start all over," Dixon said. "But I know him, I know the kind of person he is, he will work extremely hard in his [rehabilitation] process and get himself ready to go at some point next year.
"I think what he brought, in terms of scoring, in terms of shooting and his defense, those things were big for us, but what he also brought a lot of energy to the court, picked guys up, picked up practices with his enthusiasm and his energy and just how hard he played.
"Those things, that energy, that passion, that enthusiasm, they are going to have to come from some other guys, and I do believe we have a few others who bring that energy but Durand really brought it every day."
Dixon said he won't call on one player to fill Johnson's role, but, rather, a combination of players. He said the four who will have the most opportunity are the freshmen -- Mike Young, Josh Newkirk, Jamel Artis and Chris Jones.
Tonight will be the first test of the reshuffled roles, depth and versatility as the Panthers will play a conference road game against a Yellow Jackets team that has been pretty good at home.
Georgia Tech (10-6, 1-2) is 8-1 at home, where Georgia Tech already has notched wins against Illinois and Notre Dame.
The Yellow Jackets will present a formidable challenge to Pitt, especially since Dixon will be mixing and matching lineups until he finds an adjusted rotation that works
"I think really the four freshmen will be the guys who will get the most opportunity to step in, and all of them have shown they are capable," Dixon said. "I think Josh Newkirk is a guy who has proven he can handle more and so has Mike [Young] and Jamel [Artis], and we have already been doing some more with Chris Jones. So, I think we should be OK in terms of finding some players to step in."
One player who clearly will be leaned on a little more -- as if he doesn't already carry enough of a load --is senior Lamar Patterson, who is coming off a huge week in which he averaged 23 points in wins against Maryland and Wake Forest and was named the ACC player of the week for the second time this season.
Dixon said Patterson has been a jack-of-all trades anyway and will continue to do so, and his ability to play three positions gives the coaches considerable flexibility in developing a new rotation.
Patterson is averaging 17.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game and also leads the team with 4.5 steals per game. He is the first Pitt player since Sam Young in 2008-09 to be named conference player of the week twice in a season.
Dixon said that Georgia Tech is young but has improved as the season progressed. The Yellow Jackets have stepped up as evidenced by their win Saturday against Notre Dame.
"They have some younger guys starting, they are similar to Wake Forest with a lot of sophomores," Dixon said. "It really depends on how your classes fall and who you have, it is really hard to be good every year."
If Pitt wins tonight, it would set up a huge game Saturday at Carrier Dome against No. 2 Syracuse, but Dixon said he doesn't worry about his players looking past the Yellow Jackets to the Orange because they know every game is important to a team with NCAA tournament aspirations.
"We've been focused," Dixon said. "I got their attention when I told them [Georgia Tech] beat Notre Dame, that was first thing I said to them after the game [Saturday]. This is a focused group, no question, we have eight guys who have a 3.0 [GPA] and no arrests, they are doing the right things.
"We're comfortable on the road and they are confident, and our guys are excited about playing on the road."
Game: Pitt (15-1, 3-0 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (10-6, 1-2).
When: 9 p.m.
Where: McCamish Pavilion, Atlanta.
TV, Radio: ESPNU; KDKA-FM (93.7).
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @paulzeise.
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