Panthers hope experience, depth provide boost in first road game
January 9, 2016 12:00 AM
Pitt is 70-51 in road games under head coach Jamie Dixon, shown here reacting after being called for a technical foul in the first half Wednesday night against Georgia Tech at the Petersen Events Center.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Only two of the 351 Division I men’s basketball teams have not played a road game this season.
One is the University of Washington, which visits rival Washington State today; the other is Pitt (13-1, 2-0), which travels to face ACC foe Notre Dame (10-4, 1-1) today at Joyce Center in Notre Dame, Ind.
Pitt, however, has played three neutral-site games, though one was canceled at halftime, and has many veteran players. Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said the first road game always is going to be a little different, no matter how early or late it is in the season.
“I anticipate us playing well,” Dixon said. “We are on paper an experienced team until you see three graduate transfers and it depends on how you want to think, though I think our guys bring experience and they learn quicker than say a freshman would.”
January 9 is the latest since the 1951-52 season that the Panthers have gone before playing their first road game. But there is nothing unusual about Pitt not playing any road games in their non-conference schedule.
That doesn’t seem to have affected the Panthers’ ability to win. They are 70-51 in road games under Dixon.
Pitt didn’t play a road game before conference play in the 2013-14, 2012-13 and 2010-11 seasons. In two of those seasons, the Panthers won their first conference road game.
So, is this a chance for Dixon to learn something new about his team?
“You learn something every day, and every game is about learning something,” Dixon said. “And then, once you think you figure it out, you learn something new. I don’t think you ever stop learning. We emphasize that. It doesn’t matter who you are playing.
“It is all about an opportunity to learn and build on what you have done. Every game is a test.”
The test today is Notre Dame, which was hoping to build on its ACC tournament championship and Elite Eight run in 2015. The Irish were picked to finish fourth in the preseason ACC media poll. So far, however, the Irish haven’t lived up to expectations, losing to unranked Monmouth, Alabama and Indiana and falling to highly-ranked Virginia in their ACC opener.
They return three starters this season — including one of the top point guards in Division I in Demetrius Jackson — but the two starters that graduated, Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, were a significant part of the team’s success.
Connaughton and Grant combined for 29 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game and also provided leadership, toughness and excellent defense. The Irish seemingly have been searching for players to fill that void.
Dixon said players of that caliber can be difficult to replace, but he thinks Notre Dame is poised for a run.
“If you look at the year before, when they didn’t have Grant because he was suspended, they had all those struggles,” Dixon said. “You could look at that and think there might be a drop, but then you look and see they have a point guard as good as Jackson returning.”
Jackson leads the Irish in scoring (16.4 ppg), assists (5.2 apg) and steals (19). He is quick off the dribble and an excellent defender, and his ability to run the fast break, penetrate the lane and dish to shooters makes him an extremely difficult player to guard.
Pitt point guard James Robinson said slowing down Jackson is only part of the challenge the Panthers face today; the other part is playing in front of a hostile crowd.
“Playing on the road is hard regardless of where it is,” Robinson said. “But we are comfortable with each other and the confidence we have in each other is going to play a large role in our success. We won’t have the [Oakland] Zoo behind us, so we are going to have to create our own energy and be ready to play.
“Obviously, Jackson is aggressive, and we are going to have to be ready. ... They are a good team, but we have a good team, too, and we think our depth will help us out.”
Matchup: No. 24 Pitt (13-1, 2-0 ACC) vs. Notre Dame (10-4, 1-1), 4 p.m. today, Joyce Center, Notre Dame, Ind.
TV/Radio: Root Sports; KDKA-FM (93.7).
Pitt: Has won two in a row in the series. ... Has yet to play a “true” road game this season. ... Is 70-51 in road games under coach Jamie Dixon. ... Was 2-9 on the road in 2014-15. ... Is averaging 85.3 points per game. ... Is outrebounding opponents by 11.1 rebounds per game.
Notre Dame: Leads all-time series, 31-29. ... Has won three of past four games vs. Panthers at Joyce Center. ... Coming off an 82-54 win at Boston College. ... G Demetrius Jackson leads team in scoring (16.4 ppg).
Hidden stat: Pitt is winning by an average of 21.1 points per game.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com and Twitter @paulzeise.
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