Dixon believes Panthers' defensive breakdowns are mostly mental
February 27, 2016 12:00 AM
Louisville's Damion Lee drives to the net against Pitt's Chris Jones in the first half Wednesday at Petersen Events Center.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt appeared to have its game under control Wednesday night against No. 11 Louisville when the Panthers had possession of the ball and led the Cardinals by eight points with nine minutes to play.
But Pitt missed a shot on that offensive trip, and the Cardinals finished the game by outscoring the Panthers, 27-12. Louisville won, 67-60.
That stretch of nine minutes certainly will be one the Panthers might remember Selection Sunday if they are squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble or on the outside looking in. While a home loss to a highly ranked opponent didn’t knock them out of the tournament conversation, it certainly won’t help.
That second half, though, was very much a microcosm of the Panthers season. At times, they play at a high level, but down the stretch they often fall victim to the same things — defensive breakdowns, turnovers and missed shots — that have stopped them from beating good teams.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said such breakdowns on defense and late-game turnovers mostly are a result of players losing focus.
“Everybody has [mental] breakdowns, the best teams in the country do,” Dixon said. “It is a lot of times mental. ... Guys are trying to make a play that was the right thing at the right time. It isn’t like a guy stopped playing and let them score. Often times, it is a guy trying to make a play. It is impatience and trying to make something happen, but, sometimes, it is just the other guy makes a tough shot.
“But we are always striving to be better. We have to strive to be better. That always has to be the mentality, and we need to stick to what you believe in and the basics and get it done.
“It wasn’t like we tried it and it didn’t work. We saw it for 30 minutes. We know we can do this.”
To Dixon’s point, Pitt’s defense in the second half was a big reason it had a chance to win Wednesday. But it became a big reason the Panthers lost.
The Panthers turned a 33-29 halftime lead into a 48-40 edge and was on pace to hold the Cardinals to around 50 points. Louisville then finished the game by making its final nine field-goal attempts. That included five wide-open 3-pointers and two dunks when the Panthers got caught in bad rotations.
In addition to taking the lead, the Cardinals saw their shooting percentages rise for the game to .509 from the field (27 of 53) and .438 from 3-point range (7 of 16). Pitt’s goals are to hold opponents to less than 40 percent from the field and less than 30 percent from the 3-point line.
Senior point guard James Robinson, now the Panthers’ career leader in games started with 129, played on some good defensive teams early in his career and said he thinks this team has shown it can be that at times.
“I wish it was that easy to point to one thing,” Robinson said. “It is each person buying in and believing that we can get that stop, that when we give up baskets three, four possessions in a row, we have to believe on that fifth possession that enough is enough.
“Hopefully, that game is something that we can learn from, but we have to buckle down and get that next stop. I know that we are more than capable of getting the job done. We still need to develop a confidence level against a good team, but we have another good opportunity in front of us.”
Pitt (19-8, 8-7 ACC) plays No. 15 Duke (21-7, 10-5) Sunday at Petersen Events Center, and the defense will once again be put to the test. The Blue Devils are 15th in the NCAA in scoring, averaging 82.3 points per game.
Dixon said the breakdowns on defense have come from different players at different times. But he believes the mistakes are correctable — or at least he has focused on the things that can be corrected. That starts with focus and the mental part of the game.
“We can’t get taller or faster in the next week,” Dixon said. “But we can improve what we do mentally and how we approach things.
“But it has been different things, both our man and our zones and things that we hadn’t done a lot in the past that have caused some of the breakdowns. Some of the things [in the Louisville game] were things we hadn’t done all year.
“Some of it, though, is that you have to give them credit. They made plays, too, but the breakdowns were across the board. We were very good for the first 11 minutes of the half, but we needed to do it for the entire half.”
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @paulzeise.
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