Pitt prepares for long road trip
By: Ryan Bertonaschi
You can classify Jamie Dixon’s 2014-15 Pitt Panthers as a “work in progress.”
Wednesday morning, the Panthers (2-0) traveled across the globe for a week-long stay in the Aloha State, where they will take on the University of Hawaii (2-1) Friday at 11:59 p.m. before playing three games in the 2014 Maui Invitational next week.
Several Pitt players, including Jamel Artis (hamstring), Ryan Luther (foot) and Cameron Wright (foot) are battling injury, although Artis and Luther are expected to play Friday, and the coaching staff has still not decided at which positions others will play. Dixon said Tuesday that, for these reasons, scheduling the game against Hawaii works out to his team’s advantage, and he’s placing a good bit of value on the additional road game.
“I think it gets you ready a little better. If you’re going to go that far, you might as well make it a trip,” Dixon said. “It gives us an additional road game on our schedule. Very few teams are playing two road games in our conference.”
Pitt junior swingman Durand Johnson was suspended for the season last week for unspecified reasons. The extra game will also provide Dixon with the opportunity to get a better understanding for how he can approach directing the small forward position given Johnson’s absence, and it’s a nonconference game that won’t be held in the confines of the Petersen Events Center, which has served as Pitt’s customary home for early-season matchups.
The Panthers’ first two opponents this season brought with them a guard-oriented style of play, and both teams lacked height. Hawaii is similar in that nobody in the Rainbow Warriors’ starting five is taller than 6-foot-7, and their guards are explosive off the dribble.
“They have some bigger guys, but it looks like they mostly play smaller guys on the perimeter,” Pitt guard Chris Jones said Tuesday. “They’re going to be a lot like the other two teams we played, driving [often]. If we’re just in the right spots defensively then I think things will take care of themselves.”
When Josh Newkirk is in the game for the Panthers, he has picked up the opposing point guard off inbounds passes after a made basket by Pitt. Dixon classified Pitt’s perimeter defense as, “Something that we haven’t done a good job with in the exhibition,” and Newkirk, the sophomore speedster, said that the goal of his added pressure is to compensate for Pitt’s poor perimeter defense.
“It starts on the ball with me pressuring, disrupting the offensive players, not letting them get into a groove offensively,” Newkirk said of the defensive scheme Pitt will continue to use against smaller teams. “It starts with me pressuring the ball full court, making it a lot harder for the offense to run their sets, so that’s become a major priority for us.”
Dixon has taken his Pitt teams to the NCAA Tournament in 10 of 11 years, and, as an assistant at Northern Arizona in 1998, he helped guide the Lumberjacks to an NCAA Tournament berth.
But his first trip to the NCAA Tournament was actually in 1994 as an assistant at Hawaii.
Friday’s game will be the first game that he’s coached on the island since 1999, when he returned to Hawaii for a year as an assistant.
Pitt sophomore walk-on Joshua Ko is a native of Kailua, H.I., which is on the island of Oahu. The University of Hawaii is in Honolulu, which is also a part of Oahu, but the game will be played in Maui.
Ko was awarded Hawaii’s 2013 Gatorade State Basketball Player of the Year after guiding his high school team to back-to-back state championships. His parents plan on attending each of Pitt’s games during the trip.