Panthers on board with Dixon

Coach raises bar for rebound differential, and team responds with NCAA's No. 1 ranking

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The starting center left the team a week ago. The leading rebounder is a 6-foot-5 power forward, and he is not among the top 15 rebounders in the Big East Conference.

But that has not stopped Pitt from taking its usual place among the top rebounding teams in Division I.

Pitt has been among the NCAA's top 10 in rebounding margin in four of Jamie Dixon's first eight seasons as head coach. This season, the Panthers are atop the NCAA with a 13.9 rebounding margin per game through 12 games.

The Panthers might not have a DeJuan Blair or Aaron Gray patrolling the inside this season, but they are getting the job done collectively.


Next
  • Game: Wagner (7-3) vs. No. 15 Pitt (11-1), Petersen Events Center.
  • When: 8 p.m. Friday.
  • TV: ESPNU.

Dixon has taken a different approach to motivating the Panthers this season. His usual goal had been for his team to outrebound opponents by 10 per game. This season, Dixon has upped the ante, setting different goals before every game. Sometimes, the goal is 15, sometimes, it is 20.

It was 20 Tuesday night against Saint Francis of Loretto, Pa., and the Panthers finished the game plus-21, doubling up the Red Flash, 42-21.

"It's just the type of team that we are," said junior center Dante Taylor, second on the team with 6.2 rebounds per game. "We always try to lead the country in rebounding. I don't think they were ready for us to come out that hard and go that hard for offensive and defensive rebounds. The past few games we usually would be like, 'Let's outrebound them by 15.' The past three we said, 'Let's outrebound by them 20.'

"Even if you set that mark and fall short, you'll always be ahead of them by at least double digits. [Tuesday], we were able to outrebound them by 21. That was a goal we wanted."

Pitt has finished second in Division I in rebounding margin in two of the past three seasons. The Panthers were second only to Old Dominion last season when they averaged plus-10.8 on the boards. In 2008-09, they were second only to Michigan State when they averaged plus-9.3.

This season, the whopping plus-13.9 margin is nearly two rebounds more per game than the next team in the rankings.

The Panthers are plus-20 in rebounding margin the past four games. They outrebounded VMI by 29, Oklahoma State by 18 and South Carolina State by 12 before the Saint Francis game.

"We're trying to challenge the guys with the numbers," Dixon said of the new goals. "It's something we talked about last year. We ended up second. We're first again this year. It's something we've done year after year. It's our strength, and we need to continue to play to it and continue to build off it and not be satisfied."

Without a dominating center, Dixon is asking his wing players and guards to contribute more rebounds. Nasir Robinson, a 6-5 power forward, leads the team with 6.3 rebounds per game and Taylor is right behind him.

Lamar Patterson, a 6-5 small forward, is averaging 5.4 per game. His backup at small forward, 6-6 J.J. Moore, is averaging 3.4 per game.

"It adds something to what we've had in the past," Dixon said. "We have bigger wings and more active rebounders at those spots. It's something that can help us at the end of the day."

Patterson has grabbed five rebounds or more in six of the team's 12 games. He is one of five players on the roster who have done that this season.

"We all just go after it," Patterson said. "We want everyone to attack the defensive boards. The only person getting back is the point guard for offense. We want to dominate the rebounding."

Even the guards are getting into the act. Tray Woodall was averaging 3.4 per game before he went out of the lineup with an abdominal injury. Ashton Gibbs is averaging 3.0 per game. The only regulars in the rotation who are not averaging at least 3.0 per game are John Johnson and Cameron Wright, and they are playing the fewest minutes.

"I felt we were going to be a good rebounding team, but we wouldn't have a guy high in numbers," Dixon said. "We have five guys above five rebounds per game. I doubt anyone else has that. That's rare. That's not a stat that people probably look at. You may talk about five double-digit scorers, but you never hear about five guys above five rebounds a game.

"It's by committee. It's a group thing. It's something we have to continue.

"We're really emphasizing our guards to get more rebounds. That's something that hurt us early in the year. We weren't getting the long rebounds. We have to get better at that, too."


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.


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