Final non-conference game gave Pitt reserves some seasoning
January 4, 2016 12:00 AM
Pitt freshman Damon Wilson drives to the hoop Saturday against Maryland-Eastern Shore.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt played its final non-conference game Saturday against Maryland Eastern Shore, and as expected the Panthers rolled to an easy 92-58 win.
But the significance of the game was not the win or the margin of victory, it was they were able to improve in a couple of areas and also it enabled coach Jamie Dixon to get his reserves a lot of work before they dive into the ACC schedule.
All 11 scholarship players who are not being redshirted played at least 10 minutes Saturday and 10 of them played 14 minutes or more.
Dixon said the Panthers had the luxury of playing a late non-conference game because they were picked to play in the ACC Tip-Off event Wednesday against Syracuse, thus creating an open date.
He said that even though it was a lopsided score, the Panthers did some really good things that will translate against better competition and in tighter games.
“This is our bye week, and we put a non-conference game in,” Dixon said. “It was a little unique, but I thought we handled it well. We were unselfish all the way through. We could have done some things differently defensively early with guarding the dribble, but we picked it up in the second half, and it got us going.
“There’s value in this game, and it was an opportunity for us to get better. Every team does something well and does something different. We had to get used to traps and jumping the ball in the backcourt [against UMES]. There were a lot of good things, but we played unselfishly.”
Dixon said the Panthers (12-1) have taken a lot of strides, especially defensively, in the first 12 games and he believes they accomplished everything he was hoping to through the non-conference schedule.
He said Saturday was important because he was able to play younger players such as Damon Wilson, Ryan Luther and Cam Johnson a lot of minutes.
Pitt struggled from the 3-point line (4 of 15, 26.7 percent) but it was able to win because they did a good job of scoring in transition and turning offensive rebounds into points.
“The one thing I wondered going into this game was, if we don’t make shots, does our defense suffer?” Dixon said. “And do we not maintain the defense we need to maintain? So I think that is something we need to address and get better at. I thought we did, and hopefully we got something accomplished.
“Our rebounding numbers have been pretty impressive, and it’s been consistent. The encouraging thing is that we are doing things well that are hard to do. We’re guarding ball screens. Our post defense has been good. We’re doing some things that are correctable, some things we didn’t do well against Syracuse we did well [Saturday].”
The Panthers’ fate in the ACC likely will be determined by how well the center spot holds up against the bigger, more athletic centers.
Rafael Maia has seized the starting job but it is still a position that is being manned by committee and Dixon had high praise for the work of two of the players in that mix – Ryan Luther and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa.
Luther had six points and four rebounds in 14 minutes Saturday and Nelson-Ododa had his best outing in a few weeks as he played 13 minutes and had 7 points, 2 rebounds and 2 blocked shots.
Nelson-Ododa began the season as the starter then fell behind Maia but since has rebounded and put together a few good games in a row.
Dixon said the center-by-committee has worked so far because at least one of the three, not to mention Sheldon Jeter, is going to play well every night. Recently that player has been Nelson-Ododa.
“Alonzo got down on the post and was scoring. I thought he had a lot of energy and was active,” Dixon said. “He was vocal and got involved. If you look at Sheldon [Jeter], Ryan and Alonzo, those are three pretty good players. It’s going to be someone new every night.
“Rafael [Maia] didn’t get going [Saturday] but he will next game.”
Nelson-Ododa said that competing for playing time is actually a good thing for all the players involved.
“I’ve been struggling as of lately, but I’ve been working hard in practice,” Nelson-Ododa said. “Just any time I go in I’m going to play as hard as I can, and that showed [Saturday]. Usually for me, if I block a few shots it really gets my energy going.
“Anything I can do to get energy going, whether it is defensively or offensively just to get me going.”
Pitt plays Georgia Tech (10-4, 0-1) Wednesday at Petersen Events Center. The Yellow Jackets lost at North Carolina, 86-78, Saturday in their ACC opener.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com Twitter @paulzeise.
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