Three keys to the Pitt men's basketball season
1 Make the pieces fit
Many of Pitt's problems last season stemmed from the fact that coach Jamie Dixon was forced to play some personnel out of position because of injuries and unproductive play. He had to move his starting shooting guard to point guard and then play two freshmen, who were not ready for prime time roles, at shooting guard. He also had to play a power forward at center for much of the season. Dixon won't have to do much shuffling with his lineup this season. His team is deep and talented. IUP coach Joe Lombardi remarked after Pitt's first exhibition game that Dixon's roster is like Noah's Ark. "They've got two of everything."
Dixon's task this season will be finding the right chemistry with so many new players being plugged into the rotation. Senior Tray Woodall, who missed a big chunk of last season with an abdominal injury, and freshman James Robinson are two starter-caliber point guards. But how does Dixon get enough minutes for his talented freshman without damaging his senior's confidence or comfort level? Transfer Trey Zeigler is a talented offensive player who led Central Michigan in scoring the past two seasons. Blending in a transfer who is used to having the ball in his hands can be tricky on a team that traditionally prefers to spread around the scoring wealth. And finally, there is the delicate problem of starting a freshman over a senior at center. By all accounts, Steven Adams, the Big East preseason rookie of the year, has earned the right to start ahead of Dante Taylor. This is where Dixon has to be able to still coax the maximum out of Taylor, who can be a valuable rotation player.
Dixon will not have the same problems as last season because he addressed his depth with a talented freshman class and Zeigler. Managing egos and finding the right chemistry on the go will be his biggest challenge.
2 Grit and grind
After a year when Pitt was among the worst defensive teams in the Big East, Dixon believes he has a team that is capable of being among the best this season. The Panthers allowed opposing teams to average 67.7 points per game -- the most since the 1999-2000 season -- and to shoot 44.1 percent -- the highest percentage since 1998-99. Dixon has made defense a point of emphasis in preseason practices.
Adams, the 7-footer from New Zealand, can be an effective eraser in the middle with his ability to block and alter shots. The Panthers did not have that element last season. They also did not have quality perimeter defense. It's one of the reasons Dixon has been force feeding Robinson, who is already among the best backcourt defenders. In Robinson, Dixon has a 6-foot-3 guard who is quick and big enough to handle the stronger guards throughout the league.
Playing better defenders is only part of the solution. The players have to buy into the new mindset Dixon is selling. Do these Panthers want to roll up their sleeves and get back to the gritty style that became the signature of Dixon's program? Their willingness to do so could determine how far the team goes in March.
3 Feed the post
Another point of emphasis in the preseason has been for the post players to have their hands on the ball more than they did last season. Dixon still might not have a dominant low-post scorer, but he feels better about his inside scoring ability with the addition of Adams, who has improved his inside touch after playing with his face to the basket while growing up in New Zealand. It will take time for Adams to develop into a consistent back-to-the-basket scorer, but he has the raw skills and strength to hold his own.
The Panthers relied too much on outside shooting last season because the post scorers were ineffective. They will not be as reliant on outside shooting this season because the addition of Zeigler means the team has a penetrator who will open things up not only for the outside shooters but for the power forwards and centers. Adams and veterans Taylor and Talib Zanna should get some easier opportunities when their defenders have to help on Zeigler and Pitt's other guards in the lane.
Dixon prefers to play inside-out. His post personnel prevented that from happening the past few seasons. With Adams in the post and Zeigler penetrating, expect the Panthers to revert to the old form that was so successful for the program during the early years of Dixon's tenure.
First Published November 5, 2012 12:00 am