'Bye week' comes at perfect time for Pitt

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The Pitt Panthers haven’t played a game in a week, and coach Jamie Dixon said that is a good thing because they needed the rest.

The Panthers played four games before their little break with a number of players ailing, most recently a four-point loss to North Carolina. The time off, though, has helped them heal to get ready for the stretch run.

Pitt (20-6, 8-5) plays in an ACC matchup Sunday against Florida State (15-11, 6-8) at Petersen Events Center. It is the first of five remaining games (two at home, three on the road) in the regular season.

The Panthers are hoping to solidify their NCAA tournament resume.

Dixon said that the “bye week” came at the right time because they needed extra practices to fix some of their own issues without having to plan for an opponent.

“For us, it was good, it was needed because we had so many games in a row,” Dixon said. “In the Big East, we had two sort of bye weeks or open days where you don’t play, but in the ACC we only get one and you don’t know when you are going to get them.

“Ours just happened to be in the latter part of the year, but we obviously needed it. We needed to practice. We hadn’t practiced enough given the situation. It is good and it was effective for us in terms of health, too, as some guys needed some time off, and that was important.”

Dixon said Lamar Patterson (thumb) and Talib Zanna (ankle) were able to practice this week but had a few days off after the North Carolina game that helped them get back close to full strength.

He said the only player who wasn’t able to practice was little-used reserve Joseph Uchebo, who got hit in the jaw in the first part of practice Tuesday and is day to day.

Dixon said the practices were a little shorter but intense. He said there was some progress in addressing the defensive and rebounding breakdowns that have hurt the Panthers, who have lost four of their past six games.

This season already has been longer than usual because of the new rules allowing practices to start earlier in the fall. Dixon spent a lot of time working hard in September trying to stretch out practices and ration time on the court so that fatigue didn’t set in late in the season.

He said that looking back he thinks the Panthers are in good shape and mentally and physically are ready for the stretch run.

“I do like where we are this week,” Dixon said. “We went short but I felt like we went hard every day. But given the situation that this was our week off this late, the timing was good. I hadn’t felt like we had the practices we wanted to have, the time to focus on us rather than other teams, so this was good and we took advantage of it.”

One concern for Dixon was the fact that the freshmen hit a “wall” because the college season is so much longer than the high school season.

Pitt relies heavily on four freshmen and will need all four to play at a high level if it is going to continue to improve and have success in the NCAA tournament.

Dixon said he addressed the fatigue factor with his four freshmen — Chris Jones, Jamel Artis, Michael Young and Josh Newkirk — this week. He basically told them that now is the time when they will have to be tough enough to fight through injuries and tired legs.

“We talked to the freshmen, I think they played well and obviously they are getting a lot of minutes because of the injury to Durand [Johnson]. Across the board they have played well,” Dixon said. “At the same time, this is the longest year they had ever been through already at this point. We have talked to them about the fact that this is where we need discipline and commitment going down the stretch.

“They can’t be tired, they can’t be sore; those are things they have to overcome. You can’t let it affect you. They may be there but it can’t diminish your effort or focus.”

After Florida State, Pitt has road games Wednesday at Boston College and Saturday at Notre Dame. They finish with North Carolina State March 3 at Petersen Events and March 8 at Clemson.

“I can’t even worry about looking that far ahead,” Dixon said. “We are going to have to just keep playing better every time out and worry about taking care of Florida State Sunday before we worry about anything else.”

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

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