Defense taking hold again
Pitt's Lamar Patterson said he can feel the team starting to understand better what coach Jamie Dixon is looking for.
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Earlier this month, Pitt ranked 300th out of 338 teams in NCAA Division I in field goal percentage defense. This was after Long Beach State shot 59 percent, Rider 53 percent and Duquesne 52 percent.
After eight games, opposing teams were shooting a combined 45.3 percent. Coach Jamie Dixon's goal for every game is for opponents to shoot 40 percent or worse from the field, and that happened only once in the first eight games.
In the past three weeks, the defense has improved immensely and it has Dixon feeling much better about his team as the Panthers enter their final non-conference game of the season tonight against Wagner at the Petersen Events Center.
Three of the past four opponents have shot 40 percent or less. The one team that shot better than 40 percent was Oklahoma State, which shot 41.9 percent.
- Matchup: No. 15 Pitt (11-1) vs. Wagner (7-3), 8 p.m. today, Petersen Events Center.
- TV, radio, Internet: ESPNU, KDKA-FM (93.7), www.pittsburghpanthers.com .
- Pitt: Coming off 71-47 victory against Saint Francis. ... Played one previous game against Wagner, a 2003 NCAA tournament game the Panthers won, 87-61, at the Civic Arena. ... Against Saint Francis, senior G Ashton Gibbs (17.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg) did not reach double figures in scoring for the first time this season. ... Sophomore F Lamar Patterson (9.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) is shooting 45.2 percent from 3-point range. ... Junior C Dante Taylor (8.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg) has scored in double figures four times in the past seven games.
- Wagner: Coming off 70-69 home loss to Lehigh. ... Coach Danny Hurley is in his second season as head coach. ... Brother Bobby Hurley, a former point guard at Duke, is an assistant coach. ... Led by Jonathon Williams (13.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Tyler Murray (13.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Latif Rivers (12.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg).
- Hidden stat: Hurley is 7-7 against Pitt as a player and coach. He was 3-4 as a player at Seton Hall and 4-3 as an assistant coach at Rutgers.
The Panthers held Saint Francis to 35.2 percent Tuesday night -- the lowest shooting percentage for an opponent this season.
"We've come a long way," Dixon said. "I feel good about it. We were way below our normal standards. We got it changed. It obviously had to do with some new guys being in there. We're getting better."
Half of the players in Dixon's rotation are first- or second-year players in the program. Freshman Khem Birch started for six games before he left the team last week, and redshirt freshman Cameron Wright has been starting for the past four after Tray Woodall was injured.
Sophomore J.J. Moore and freshmen John Johnson, Isaiah Epps and Malcolm Gilbert, who is seeing playing time in Birch's absence, have regular roles in the rotation.
"Guys are getting more familiar with what we're doing," Dixon said. "We know what we're supposed to do now. There's nothing new being taught now, especially on the defensive end."
Redshirt sophomore Lamar Patterson is in his third season in the program, but he is in his first season as a starter. He said it took some time for the young players to understand what Dixon and the coaches wanted on the defensive end.
"You can definitely feel it," Patterson said. "In the beginning, guys didn't know certain little schemes we wanted to get done. They weren't as confident in themselves. Now we're starting to get our feet wet more. We know how to get it done."
Dixon said it's hard to pinpoint one thing for the recent improvement. He said it's the result of the young players learning the system on offense and defense. Long Beach State and Rider shot a high percentage against Pitt partly because the Panthers displayed poor shot selection on offense.
Long Beach State and Rider got dunks and other easy shots because the transition defense was caught off guard after the offense was not executed well enough.
As the players have become more familiar with the way Dixon wants them to play on offense, the number of layups opposing teams have been converting have decreased.
When the Panthers have been able to set up in their half-court defense they have displayed their familiar brand of defense.
"It's not one thing," Dixon said. "It's just getting to the right spots, feeling more comfortable and anticipating. It's a combination of a lot of things."
The improvement has been reflected in the team's statistical ranking. It will take a long time to recover from their early-season woes, but the Panthers are now allowing opponents to shoot 43.7 percent.
The recent stretch of good defensive games has improved Pitt from 300th to 241st.
"That just shows how much more comfortable we're becoming with each other as a unit," Wright said. "Our team chemistry is coming together. That helps us a lot. It's coming together."
First Published December 23, 2011 12:00 am