Panthers put rare spin on rotation
Besides sitting Jan. 22 against Providence, Cameron Wright has been one of the 10 players in Jamie Dixon's rotation.
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Ten-man rotations in college basketball are not popular among coaches. Most prefer to stick with smaller rotations because they are easier to manage.
Many don't have such an option. With players leaving early for the NBA, transferring or missing games because of injuries or eligibility issues, coaches are having a hard time fielding 10-man rosters much less 10-man rotations.
Pitt and Marquette are bucking the trend this season. The Panthers and Golden Eagles are employing unconventional rotations and winning.
Marquette coach Buzz Williams is using a 10-man -- and sometimes 11-man rotation -- with the Golden Eagles, who are tied atop the Big East standings with Syracuse at 7-2. Pitt, also with a 10-man rotation, isn't far behind in fifth at 7-4.
"We need all 10 guys to be at their absolute best each day," Williams said Thursday morning. "These guys are competing each day in practice. What you do is go out and get as many talented and versatile guys as you can and you let those guys compete."
Dixon has taken a similar approach. Other than one game against Providence last month, he has been committed to playing 10 players every game.
"We do it because we think it makes us a better team," Dixon said. "Each guy is different than the guy they're going in for. That's something that has made us better. They're feeling more confident about what we're doing defensively and they're building off that. They're seeing the value in how they can impact the game."
Immediately after the 68-64 victory Jan. 22 against the Friars, Dixon said he made a mistake by not playing Cameron Wright, the team's best perimeter defender. Dixon did not believe his team could win consistently on the road by allowing an opponent to shoot 47 percent from the field as the Friars did.
Dixon returned Wright to the rotation the following game against DePaul, and he has been a fixture since. The other reserves have been fixtures all season.
J.J. Moore is a 6-foot-6 natural small forward who creates mismatches against most teams as the backup power forward. Trey Zeigler and Durand Johnson are scorers who provide offensive punch at small forward and shooting guard, and Dante Taylor is an effective offensive rebounder and solid defender behind Steven Adams at center.
"This team is unique," Dixon said. "The strength is in playing 10 guys. That's not normal, but I think it's what's best for us. It takes some time to develop. That's why we've gotten so much better."
Having quality backups at every position serves another purpose. It provides constant competition in practice and games. Since Lamar Patterson watched Johnson play the starter's minutes in Pitt's 58-43 win at Villanova, he has been among the best players in the Big East.
Patterson confessed the push by Johnson lit a fire under him. At Pitt this season, such competition is not unique to small forward. Every player has to compete in practice for playing time in games.
"The biggest challenge is competing," said Moore, a junior who is averaging 19 minutes per game as Talib Zanna's backup. "Everyone on the bench is giving good minutes. If it comes down to some of the teammates not playing, then that's what it is. We understand our roles and what's going on. We're just going to keep going and continue to play hard."
There are pitfalls to playing large rotations. There are egos to soothe and worries about team chemistry with so few minutes to go around. In Big East games, no Pitt player is averaging more than 27 minutes a game and the least-used reserve (Johnson) still averages 12.7 minutes per game.
But the relatively even split of minutes has not had an adverse effect on team chemistry, according to Dixon. If anything, he believes it has helped.
"The guys really like each other," Dixon said. "They like to see those other guys come in and make plays. They have confidence in them."
First Published February 8, 2013 12:00 am