Originally written on Pitt Blather  |  Last updated 10/30/14
Feel like I have neglected most of the pre-season and exhibition portion of Pitt basketball. Lots of  questions. Lots of curiosity. Lots of reasons for optimism. But no one really seems to be sure of the answers. You can see it in all the preseason polls and predictions. There’s talk of Pitt being sleeper potential. Lots of polls putting them just outside the top-25, but definitely in the NCAA Tournament. The headliner is Steven Adams in the middle as one of the best freshmen nationally and potential NBA lottery pick. Given his personality and sense of humor, he figures to continue being a popular figure for the national media. Time for some links and thoughts: With the first game of the season tomorrow, the starting line-up appears to be: Travon Woodall, James Robinson, Lamar Patterson, Talib Zanna, Steven Adams. It is something of a surprise that Trey Zeigler didn’t get the starting nod at shooting guard. Zeigler — while considered one of the best offensive players on Pitt’s team — is not quite measuring up on defense. It’s probably not a good sign for Zeigler that Jamie Dixon mentioned Tray Woodall, James Robinson and then John Johnson as his three best perimeter defenders after the second exhibition game Friday night. John Johnson? He was perhaps Pitt’s worst defender last season. And it’s probably not a good sign for Zeigler that he played just 15.5 minutes per game in the two exhibition contests. Seven other players averaged more minutes in the first two exhibition games. It was presumed Zeigler would step in and win the starting job at shooting guard, but Dixon appears to be leaning toward a two point guard lineup of Woodall and Robinson instead. Zeigler, a former top 100 recruit who was Central Michigan’s leading scorer the past two seasons, has had a hard time finding his niche off the bench. He has 12 points, two assists, four turnovers and no rebounds. Three of those turnovers have come on offensive fouls. Pitt’s 2-point field goal defense was somewhere around 44 – 45%. It was hideous. There was no way Dixon would let that stand for another year. Zeigler is very talented. He’s going to get the minutes during the season. No doubt about that. But he also has to unlearn a lot of habits from being the only big-talent at Central Michigan. Where he almost had to go easy on defense to conserve enough energy to do what he had to do on offense. He and Pitt were lucky enough to get the waiver to play right away. But that also means he doesn’t get a year to integrate himself into what Pitt does as, say, Mike Cook did. Some of this is simply that — and this is despite being a 4-star recruit, having a reputation for being an unselfish guy who works hard at both ends of the court, being part of the USA U-18 gold winning squad, and having been anointed the next great point guard for Pitt by many fans — James Robinson has come in and exceeded the coaches expectations. Especially on defense.  Robinson has also fit in right away with his backcourt mates. “James could be our best perimeter defender,” Dixon said. “He’s strong. He has good size, good quickness. He has good understanding.” Dixon was asked if that is uncommon for a freshman. “James has some tools,” he said. “He’s a better athlete than people anticipated. He has a good feel for the game. He’s been well-coached. We thought he’d be pretty good. He’s probably better than we thought. His strength is not something you expect from a freshman.” Senior guard Tray Woodall also heaped praise upon Robinson, who will be in the starting lineup tomorrow night alongside Woodall. “He’s a smart kid off the court,” Woodall said. “He definitely has a basketball IQ. It’s great to talk to someone who has the same basketball knowledge you have. He sees a lot of the things you see. If he sees a play that I see, and he doesn’t make the play, he’ll know right away that I saw it.” The move to start Robinson is part of Dixon’s decision to emphasize the defense. Including a bit of pressure. Dixon is tweaking his defensive philosophy and would like to force opponents into more turnovers. Man-to-man defense remains the foundation, but the plan is to pressure opposing guards and double-team post players to create steals and transition scoring opportunities. “It’s something where we hope we’re playing solid defense but also cause some turnovers which, hopefully, leads to some easier baskets in transition,” Dixon said Wednesday night after practice. “It’s not the first year we’ve emphasized it. We have good size and athleticism on the wings. Our big guys move pretty well. There are some things that we’re doing that will allow us to get some more deflections, but that remains to be seen.” … “I love it,” senior center Dante Taylor said. “Since I’ve been here, this is the first time I actually see us getting after it, taking pride in defense as far as on the ball pressure.” Dixon is taking advantage of his personnel. He is deep and talented at guard position and 7-foot center Steven Adams will serve as a big shot-blocking threat in the middle. Under Dixon, the Panthers forced more than 500 turnovers only once in his previous nine seasons. In 2007-08, the Panthers forced 519 turnovers in 37 games, or 14 per game. Last season, they bottomed out and forced 431 in 39 games, or 11 per game. Senior point guard Tray Woodall is enjoying the change in defensive approach. “Obviously, it’s different,” Woodall said. “In past years, we just wanted to play solid defense and try to pack the lane. It depended on us playing solid defense, guys missing shots and our guys getting rebounds and getting it out and going. “Now we want to pressure the ball a little more and force more turnovers because we have the big fella in the middle. We have athletic bigs who can block more shots, but, at the same time, we have guards who can be pesky at times.” It isn’t simply the type of personnel. I’m not downplaying that aspect, but that is the obvious portion. You have a big guy in the middle that will intimidate and alter shots by players trying to drive the lane like Steven Adams it allows a team to be more aggressive on the perimeter. There is more length and athleticism on the perimeter than Pitt has had… I want to say, ever under Dixon. Just as important, there is quality depth on this squad, that can allow Pitt to take some more chances with a more aggressive defense. Risk foul trouble. Something they certainly couldn’t do the last couple of years. The drop-off or inexperience was too great. Now, look at the guards and small forward spots. You have John Johnson, Cameron Wright and Zeigler all able to come in behind Woodall and Robinson. At the small forward, you can bring in J.J. Moore and Durand Johnson when they desire (I’m still assuming Chris Jones redshirts). Yes, J.J. Moore will also be at the power forward spot as part of an effort to make sure he is on the floor, but he can and will play both. It’s easier to be aggressive when there is enough of a bench. After an off-year, people seem to be forgetting about the Panthers. This isn’t the same team that struggled through multiple injuries last season, including one that forced shooting guard Ashton Gibbs to run the point for a while. This one has no one currently on the injury report, and resembles those teams that have gone 238-77 in Dixon’s nine-year tenure at the school. “I think so,” Dixon said. “But we’ve got to stay healthy.” What is interesting, despite the high potential for Pitt. The fact that defense was such a problem last year. P-G beat writer Ray Fittipaldo’s concern appears to be over the offense. The decision to emphasize defense and start Robinson over Zeigler plays into that fear. Something that he feels more strongly about with Lamar Patterson not doing much in the exhibition games. Patterson had the ball in his hands a lot more last season because of Pitt’s injury situation. He was in effect a point forward for much of the season. Now, he is playing in a lineup with two point guards. He is not touching the ball nearly as much and is in a different role to which he is not accustomed. Will Patterson get back to his normal self when he gets more minutes in the real games? Or is this another situation that Dixon has to iron out on the go during the non-conference portion of the schedule? Patterson was great during the Pittsburgh Basketball Club summer league. He won the tournament’s MVP. I had Patterson and Trey Zeigler pegged as two of the team’s top three scorers a month ago. I have no idea what they’ll contribute now. I’m sure there is some adjustment for Patterson. For his first two years and half of last year, Pitt was effectively without a point guard. You had Wanamaker effectively run things and then he helped fill that role last year when Woodall was hurt. Now he is playing a lot more without the ball. Just as Zeigler is making that change. I’m not that worried about either for the season. Patterson has proven to be adaptable to the needs of the team. And Zeigler hasn’t made any waves about his role. J.J. Moore has been solid in the exhibition games. Both in terms of performance and in physical appearance. For four months, the weight room became Moore’s refuge when he could do little else. “He couldn’t do any shooting or running, so he was in the weight room working hard,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “He’s always been a hard worker. He did about as much as he could with that situation. Lifting is what he focused on.” That has allowed Coach Dixon to put Moore at the 4 as well as the 3, so he can get more minutes. It also puts Moore closer to the basket — and more likely (I hope) to take the ball to the basket rather than try and hit jumpers.
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