Graduate transfers providing big boost for Pitt basketball
January 11, 2016 12:00 AM
Pitt center Rafael Maia and fellow senior graduate transfers Sterling Smith and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa are doing what Jamie Dixon brought them in to do.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — No. 24 Pitt allowed more than 80 points for the second game in a row, yet won both games.
This time it was an 86-82 victory Saturday against Notre Dame at Joyce Center, a game that left Irish coach Mike Brey shaking his head when he looked at how well his team played offensively. Notre Dame shot 54 percent from the floor, 45 percent from the 3-point line and had only three turnovers, almost assuredly a win against the Panthers of old.
But this is a new Pitt team. Brey said the Panthers (14-1, 3-0 ACC) have “reinvented themselves philosophically” and gave Jamie Dixon a lot of credit for pulling that off.
“They are an offensive group right now,” Brey said. “We didn’t think we were going to shut them down, we were just hoping we could curb that.”
He also mentioned something that has been a hidden factor for the Panthers: They are experienced thanks to the infusion of graduate transfers.
“They have done a great job with the graduate transfer thing of getting old and staying old,” Brey said. “There are three programs [in the ACC] that have done a great job with it: Jamie’s done a great job with it, Rick Pitino [Louisville] has done a great job, and the guys that beat Virginia today [Georgia Tech], have done a great job.
“That is an interesting dynamic which, I think, I have to have a more open mind to because it does keep you really old. We’ve done the transfer thing before [but not graduate transfers].”
Without the graduate transfers, senior guard James Robinson would be the most experienced player on the roster. But with the additions of Sterling Smith, Rafael Maia and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, the Panthers have four seniors to provide the team with experience and leadership.
And considering that juniors Jamel Artis and Mike Young have both started 51 consecutive games and have played a lot of minutes in their careers, the Panthers have six players with a lot of experience.
In fact, the roster makeover has gone so smoothly that freshman Damon Wilson is the only one Dixon has had to bring along slowly.
That isn’t much different than Pitt’s next opponent — No. 16 Louisville — which is another team that has relied heavily on graduate transfers this season. The Cardinals top two scorers this year, Damion Lee (17.3 ppg) and Trey Lewis (13.6 ppg) are both transfers. Lee played the past three seasons at Drexel and Lewis was at Cleveland State.
Pitino has already decided to go that route again for next season as Tony Hicks, who was the leading scorer at Penn the past two seasons, announced he will graduate and transfer to Louisville next season.
Georgia Tech — Pitt’s opponent in its second ACC game, — has benefited greatly from the rule as Adam Smith, who torched the Panthers for 30 points, played his first three seasons at Virginia Tech. Georgia Tech also added frontcourt depth with graduate transfer forward James White and senior Nick Jacobs, who isn’t a graduate transfer but transferred from Alabama with only one year of eligibility remaining.
Dixon has repeatedly said that since the rule is not likely not to change, it is in his best interest — and the best interest of every other major college coach — to explore it and take advantage of it.
“If you make it easier to transfer, of course a lot of guys are going to transfer.” Dixon said. “And the reality is that when you go looking for players in the spring, the best ones available are going to be graduate transfers because of their maturity and their experience.”
In the win Saturday against the Irish, Smith and Maia were huge for the Panthers at critical times. Smith, who is a graduate transfer from Coppin State, hit three 3-pointers, had five rebounds and is one of the Panthers best defenders. Maia only had one point and grabbed four rebounds, but he played 22 minutes, which was crucial with Mike Young in foul trouble, and he gave the Panthers a physical presence in the middle.
Dixon said that Smith has improved steadily as he has learned the system but said the key to that improvement is hard work and that — a great work ethic — is what he likes most about this team.
“If you play hard you get better,” Dixon said. “Sterling works really hard. These guys are working hard, they are putting the time in, off days are not off days for these guys. Thursday was a light day [of practice] but everyone was in working.
“And Monday and Tuesday, with no school, everybody was in the gym working out on their own before practice and you are going to get better and Sterling is one of those guys.”
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
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