Pitt vs. Niagara Preview
Defense and rebounding to be key in season’s early going
By: Ryan Bertonaschi
In Pitt’s two exhibition games this season, head coach Jamie Dixon stomped his feet and yelled during many of his team’s defensive possessions.
And after the Panthers got outrebounded by IUP 24-23 in their first game, they responded a week later by allowing Philadelphia to pull down nine offensive rebounds.
Dixon’s anger carried into the post-game press conference after the Philadelphia game, where he reminded those in attendance that his starting wing, Chris Jones, and his sharpshooter, Durand Johnson, combined for one rebound in Pitt’s 69-62 win that night.
It appeared to have been no fluke.
Jones and Johnson combined for two in Pitt’s 72-58 win over IUP.
“Rebounding is one of his focal points,” point guard James Robinson said Wednesday. “Even if we are out there scoring points, he wants to make sure we’re not giving up points, that we’re getting stops and rebounds [instead]. That’s just something that he likes to see, and it only makes us better if we’re able to do that.”
Sophomore Michael Young, who scored 45 points in the two games and led the team with 18 total rebounds, said Dixon has been stressing better rebounding to Jones and Johnson, along with forward Jamel Artis, in practices this past week.
The Panthers (26-10, 11-7 ACC in 2013) host Niagara (7-26, 3-17 MAAC in 2013) in both teams’ season-openers Friday night at the Petersen Events Center.
Fortunately for the Panthers, Niagara will start a front court that features a 6-foot-5 center and a 6-foot-5 power forward, meaning their work could be cut out for them on the glass.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, though, they’ll have to play out of position on defense Friday.
“[Niagara has] small but quick and undersized bigs that can shoot it and drive it,” Dixon said Wednesday.
“That’s something that we didn’t do a great job of guarding the other day. And it is normal this time of the year for [our bigger guys to be guarding] a little bit smaller guys on the perimeter. That’s an adjustment, and it’s something that we have to do a better job of. We’re working on our man, working on our zone, trying to get better,” he added.
Young started at power forward during the exhibition games. He said that he expects to play more at the center position against a lot of smaller lineups, such as Niagaras, in home nonconference games.
“Maybe with me being at the 5 and Jamel and Sheldon [Jeter] at the four can be our go-to lineup,” Young said. “Last year, I guarded every team’s best five, so this year, playing the five and guarding the best big is nothing new to me.”
While Young’s defense has received nothing but rave reviews from Dixon since last season began, the 12-year Pitt head coach openly expressed disgust over the defensive showings from some of his players following the Philadelphia game.
Dixon assessed Jeter’s defense, specifically, that night by saying, “He’s struggling.”
Pitt allowed IUP and Philadelphia to shoot 48 percent, respectively, from the floor, a figure that Young said was unacceptable.
“Our two exhibition games were poor defensive displays from us. Terrible, actually,” Young said. “We’ve been focused on that for the past few weeks, but lately there’s more intensity, more enthusiasm on defense.”
“It just comes down to us playing defense as a team, not leaving our teammate on an island, things like that. Making sure we rotate, making sure we’re talking, all things that we worked on this week to correct, and I think we’re ready.”
On the injury front…
Dixon said that Durand Johnson, who was one of the first three Panthers off the bench in both exhibition games, is still feeling ill-effects of an ankle injury he suffered several weeks ago in practice.
“That has limited his minutes in games and in practice. He goes about half in practice and half in games,” Dixon said.
Dixon mentioned that guard Cameron Wright, who is seven weeks-removed since successful surgery to repair a broken left foot, will receive an X-ray next week to determine his status as the Maui Invitational approaches.
He also said that center Derrick Randall, who injured his left ankle in Pitt’s Blue-Gold scrimmage in October, has had “two good practices” since the injury.
Randall played just eight minutes between the two exhibition games.
Wednesday was National Letter of Intent Day for college basketball’s early signing period, and Pitt landed one signature from Rozelle Nix, a 7-foot center from Cincinnati and a current sophomore at Pensacola State College in Florida.
Nix tweeted, “It’s official, I’m a Pitt Panther! #Blessed #Thankful #Grindtime #ACC” from his Twitter account that afternoon with a photo of his signature on a letter of intent.
By NCAA rule, Dixon was not permitted to comment on Nix. Still, he said, “As we say, ‘Recruiting never ends,’ so we’ll constantly be on the road these next couple of weeks, as well.”
Damon Wilson, a 6-foot-5 point guard from Georgia, committed to the Panthers on Thursday morning.