Panthers finding comfort in zone
It used to be that the only way Pitt coach Jamie Dixon would use a zone defense was out of necessity after his man-to-man defense was exposed in a game. Even then, Dixon had to be dragged kicking and screaming into employing a zone, a defense he believed signaled a resignation of the team's ideals.
That has changed now, and it was evident a week ago in a victory at Cincinnati. Cincinnati guard Sean Kilpatrick scored 15 points in the first half and the Panthers trailed by five. After halftime, Dixon switched to a zone, Kilpatrick did not make a basket in the second half, and the Panthers notched an impressive come-from-behind victory.
"Now, at this point, we go in thinking we'll use the zone," Dixon said. "That hasn't been the case in years past. The game has changed. We've changed. We recognize that. We stuck with it longer because we were having success with against Cincinnati. We think it's a nice change of pace. We want to use it."
Dixon's 2-3 zone defense could be a key for the Panthers in the final weeks of the season, and especially so in a game at 1 p.m. today at No. 18 Marquette.
For one, the Panthers had trouble stopping the penetration of Marquette's guards in the first game Jan. 12 against the Golden Eagles at Petersen Events Center. Vander Blue, who scored 22 points in Marquette's 74-67 overtime victory, got past Pitt defenders repeatedly for easy buckets. The other reason for using a zone against the Golden Eagles is their poor outside shooting.
Marquette enters the game last in the Big East Conference in 3-point shooting percentage. The Golden Eagles make just 29.5 percent of their attempts from behind the arc.
Pitt forced Cincinnati into settling for 3-pointers against the zone, and the Bearcats made only four of 25 attempts.
Matchup: No. 16 Pitt (20-5, 8-4 Big East) vs. No. 18 Marquette (17-6, 8-3), 1 p.m. today, Bradley Center, Milwaukee.
TV, Radio, Internet: KDKA, KDKA-FM (93.7), www.pittsburghpanthers.com.
Pitt: Playing for the first time in a week after beating Cincinnati, 62-52, on the road. ... Has won seven of past eight. ... Has won four of its past five on the road. ... Lost to Marquette Jan. 12 at home, 74-67. ... Freshman C Steven Adams (7.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg) scored 13 points vs. Cincinnati for his first double-figure scoring game in Big East play. ... Junior F Lamar Patterson (10.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) will make his 59th consecutive start at small forward ... Junior F Talib Zanna (10.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg) is averaging 9.3 rebounds over the past four games.
Marquette: Coming off 63-55 loss Monday at Georgetown. ... Has won 22 consecutive home games, which is the fourth-longest home winning streak in NCAA Division I. ... Reserves are contributing 29.9 points per game, which is fifth in Division I. ... Led by G Vander Blue (14.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and F Davante Gardner (11.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg).
Hidden stat: Adams is second in the Big East in field-goal percentage in conference games, shooting 56.3 percent (36 for 64).
"We were getting used to the roles we've been playing with the zone," junior guard Trey Zeigler said. "At first, we weren't sure about rotations and stuff. But now, we're starting to figure out how to play the 2-3 to be effective."
Pitt always has practiced the defense and used it occasionally during Dixon's tenure, but it was never a permanent part of the game plan. Now that the players know they'll play zone almost every game they are much more in tune with the nuances of playing it.
"Knowing we'll use it makes us work harder on it," Dixon said. "We always tried to work on it, but when you never use it in the game you didn't have the same focus or understanding of it."
When Marquette beat Pitt Jan. 12, senior team captain and leading scorer Tray Woodall left the game after four minutes because he collided with Marquette's Derrick Williams and experienced concussion-like symptoms.
Woodall's absence forced Dixon to play freshman point guard James Robinson for 36 minutes and reserves Durand Johnson and Trey Zeigler 25 and 23 minutes apiece. Dixon never found a way to find the right combinations after Woodall exited.
"That was a different game," Dixon said. "We had a completely different rotation than we've ever had. It wasn't a game where we felt we put the guys in the position we wanted to have them in. We've found our rotation. We understand what we're trying to do better. We're getting better. That's part of the growth we've had."
Pitt has won seven of eight since that game with the lone loss coming at No. 12 Louisville. The Panthers are a confident bunch heading into the rematch.
"It's going to be tough for them to beat us a second time," Robinson said. "I think we're prepared and we're up for the challenge."
A victory would inch Pitt closer to first place in the Big East, an achievement that seemed unthinkable a month ago when the overtime loss to Marquette dropped the Panthers to 1-3 in conference play.
"We feel we're a better team now than then, but we have to show that and put that on the floor on Saturday," Dixon said.
First Published February 16, 2013 12:00 am