Originally posted on Pitt Blather  |  Last updated 12/6/11

No Tennessee is not a particularly good team. They aren’t some low, mid-major either. Nor are they USF bad (have to adjust since DePaul looks kind of frisky this year). What they are is a major conference team, playing at home while struggling with a coaching change and departed talent. Pitt has higher aspirations, but played that game without their starting point guard for the first time this year.

In other words, this game was tougher for Pitt — not because of the opponent or being on the road — but because they were playing their first game with an adjusted line-up. John Johnson and Cameron Wright found their minutes upped significantly and Ashton Gibbs rarely left the court. Aside from Lamar Patterson getting a few extra minutes, because Pitt didn’t go to a 3-guard line-up with Woodall out, the rest of the line-up and minutes did not vary much more from normal.

Starting with the younger players, Cam Wright and John Johnson picked up the minutes.

Wright, a redshirt freshman from Cleveland, made his first career start. Although he did not score — going 0 for 6 from the field — he had two assists and did not have a turnover in 25 minutes. Johnson, a freshman from Philadelphia, had eight points, three assists and one turnover in 18 minutes off the bench.

That duo will receive the bulk of the playing time at guard until Woodall returns to the lineup.

“I thought John played really well and I thought Cameron played well,” Dixon said. “He didn’t make shots. He took some good ones, but he defended well, and that’s what we needed from him.”

Johnson will be counted to provide most of the offense that Woodall had been contributing. Woodall was averaging 14.1 points and 8.3 assists per game. Johnson is one of the most productive players in Dixon’s lineup when his statistics are broken down by the minute.

The downside to Cam Wright is that he just is not a very good shooter. He can play tough defense, but that has been a little inconsistent to start the season. That aspect seems to be coming around, as his minutes (and presumably confidence) have improved. When you factor in his size, he has the potential to be a vital perimeter defender.

Johnson has good hands and is definitely a natural scorer. His drawback, defensively, is that he is under 6-feet (I know that he is listed at 6-1, but I don’t know anyone that buys that). Bigger guards will potentially overpower him.

Isiah Epps really didn’t make it out on the court, despite being a point guard. Coach Dixon isn’t saying that Epps won’t play, but it’s clear that Epps still has not convinced Dixon and the other coaches that he’s done enough in practice to play in the games.

Not that there may be a choice. Gibbs played 38 minutes against Tennessee, something Coach Dixon acknowledged cannot happen too often — along with taking off the ball a bit more.

“It’s too much,” the Pitt coach said. “It’s too many minutes.”

Gibbs logged a season-high 38 minutes in the Panthers’ first game without Tray Woodall. Guards Cam Wright (25) and John Johnson (18) set career-highs in minutes, but Dixon said he needs more from them with Woodall sidelined for the next four to five weeks with an abdominal tear and groin strain.

Pitt (7-1) hosts Virginia Military Institute (3-4) on Tuesday at Petersen Events Center.

“We got the ball in (Gibbs’) hands a lot,” Dixon said. “I hope we can get away from that a little bit. We’ve got to get him off the ball a little bit more.”

As for the game itself against Tennessee, it was a strange set of halves. In the first half, Tennessee was going strong inside to score. They shot over 50% and were controlling the boards 16-15. Two things, though, really hurt them. Seven first half turnovers were brutal. It wasn’t like Pitt was aggressively killing them. They were just careless and sloppy. While Pitt shot poorly (sub-40%) in the first half, they grabbed 9 offensive rebounds for second chances. Nas had 4 of them. Between the turnovers and offensive rebounds, Pitt ended up taking 11 more shots than Tennessee in the first half. Volume was able to barely trump accuracy as Pitt took a 1-point lead into the half.

The second half saw the defense tighten up inside. Tennessee didn’t get the clean looks inside — the Tennessee front court that was responsible for 18 points in the first half only came up with 8 in the second half. Pitt started dominating them on the glass as well. Nasir Robinson after a couple of off games went for a double-double. A solid consistent game.

The one thing that kept Pitt from putting it away — missing free throws. In the final 30 seconds Pitt missed the front end of a one-and-one three times. That was where not having Woodall was noticeable. Woodall is the only 80%+ FT shooter other than Gibbs (Johnson is 100%, but only 5 FTs on the year). Pitt couldn’t get the ball as easily to a guard. Dante Taylor, twice ended up with the ball because one guard was inbounding and the other guard was double-teamed. Here are the FT % of the other Pitt players:

Patterson, 72.7 (8-11)

Moore, 66.7 (4-6)

Robinson 63.2 (12-19)

Wright, 60.0 (3-5)

Taylor 58.3 (7-12)

Birch 55.0 (11-20)

Zanna 35.7 (5-14)

Without Woodall, teams are going to be all over Gibbs. There’s going to be a bit of sweating of free throws if Pitt is holding on to a lead late in the game for the next month.

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