Pitt's Johnson, Wright plug big hole
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Interchangeable parts and depth have been a staple of the Pitt basketball program for the past decade.
Like most teams, Pitt has key players hurt and loses starters from time to time, but the Panthers keep rolling mostly because coach Jamie Dixon has been a master at having "the next guy" ready to plug into the lineup.
That's why he barely flinched when guard Tray Woodall went down (abdominal/groin injury) at the end of the Duquesne game Nov. 30.
It was not because Woodall isn't a good player, but because he knew he had a player, or in this case two, capable of holding things together while Woodall is out.
And, in the two games since, the combination of freshmen guards Cameron Wright and John Johnson hasn't disappointed Dixon.
In fact, Dixon is excited because both improved from their first game in Woodall's spot -- a 61-56 win against Tennessee -- to their second -- a 97-70 win against VMI.
"John just keeps getting better, and I thought what was really nice about the [VMI game] was that he just let things come to him," Dixon said. "He didn't force anything, he got his points, but he just let the game come to him, he took good shots, he made good decisions.
"Cameron practiced well today, and he has had a couple of good games, but we need him to feel more comfortable out there, and I think that is going to come as he plays more."
One big reason the combination works so well is they are different players.
Johnson is 6 feet 1 and is the more offensive-minded player. He is capable of scoring points in a hurry and has no trouble getting his shot off. Wright is bigger at 6-4 and more of a defensive-mined player. He is not as good a shooter as Johnson.
Wright's size and athleticism are key reasons he has been the starter for such a defense-oriented coach. .
"We don't want [Wright] focused on whether the shot goes in or not," Dixon said. "We want him focused on defending and rebounding. He can get other guys shots; that's what he needs to do. They are different in size, but, given the circumstances, we have gotten good production out of them.
"They are different but they aren't finished products, either, so what we are focused on is what they can become."
Woodall was averaging 14 points and about eight assists before he was hurt, but Pitt has not gotten that much production out of Wright and Johnson in the two games.
They have combined to average 11.5 points and five assists in two games with Johnson the more productive offensively (21 points, eight assists).
Woodall likely will miss at least seven more games, and Dixon believes his two freshmen guards will gain valuable experience that will make the Panthers deeper and better by March and NCAA tournament time.
Finding minutes for everyone when Woodall returns will not be a problem, either, because he and senior Ashton Gibbs are capable of playing both guard spots.
"We will continue to play them at the two guard spot [when Woodall returns], and that will give us 40 minutes of experienced point-guard play [between Gibbs and Woodall]," Dixon said. "Ashton can play at two as well, I think that was one of our weaknesses early in the year, just me not being comfortable with [the two freshmen].
"I'm happy with where John is, and we just need Cameron to do the things he does well and not worry so much about missing some shots."
NOTES -- Senior Nasir Robinson (surgically repaired knee stiffness) sat out of practice Thursday, but Dixon said that was his decision and that Robinson could have practiced. "We just thought giving him two days off for rest would be good for him," Dixon said. ... Dixon said Woodall has begun to "move around a little," but he still is not close to returning to practice. ... Dixon said he will stay in the Northeast on Saturday after the game at Madison Square Garden against Oklahoma State to do some recruiting in New York and Philadelphia and also to be a part of the activities at the Maggie Dixon Classic on Sunday at the Garden.
First Published December 9, 2011 12:00 am