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October 11, 2012Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon likes to have versatility on his roster, and 2012-13 figures to be no different. In fact, two of the Panthers' potential leading scorers have enough versatility that both could be on the court at the same time despite ostensibly playing the same position.
That would be redshirt junior Lamar Patterson and junior J.J. Moore, two athletic forwards with enough versatility to play multiple positions. And Dixon plans to do just that.
"You have to get your best players on the floor," Dixon said Thursday. "We've always done that, and I think that's a reason for our success over the years. And that's what we're going to do again as well."
That means using two athletic small forwards on the court at the same time. Both Moore and Patterson could line up at small forward or play power forward in a smaller lineup and have matchup advantages against bigger forwards who aren't quick enough to guard quick moves to the basket.
"They've played a lot together and we've played small, but we'll practice it more than we practiced it in the past and I think it's something you're going to see a lot more," Dixon said. "They're juniors and I think they're guys that we have to have on the floor, at times together. So I know it's something that you'll see and it's been good in the little bit we've done so far."
Patterson is expected to be the starting small forward and Moore will work off the bench, but the ability to shift down to power forward will allow the junior to see more playing time than if he was confined to one position.
Stabilizing the point
Pitt shouldn't have to rely on versatility too much at point guard this season, which will be a welcomed change from previous years. The Panthers have two true point guards on the current roster in redshirt senior Travon Woodall and freshman James Robinson, and sophomore John Johnson can also function as the third point guard if Pitt needs to dig that deep.
"Sometimes you have guys that can play as a point or can make plays as a point, like we had with Brad (Wanamaker) in the past. But there's no question, we think James is very good and we also think John Johnson is going to play some point guard for us, too. I think he's ready to do that. We had to get him ready for that situation.
"So we have three guys that we are going to count on and work with. Tray is a fifth-year guy who had a great start to his year last year, and James has really picked things up and developed both physically and mentally. I feel good about that, and John gives us good quickness. He played a lot of minutes last year; he didn't play any minutes at the point, but he played a lot of minutes on the floor, and that's going to help him."
Staying true to nature
Pitt's identity with Dixon as head coach has been defined by defense. The Panthers have established themselves as a defense-oriented team in the last decade-plus, and Dixon said Thursday that the reputation needed to be earned this season.
"We have to be the best defensive team in the conference. That's what we have to be. That's what we've done when we've won conference championships, and that's what we need to do this year."
While he characteristically hedged his bets, Dixon did let on that he thinks the 2012-13 Panthers should have a chance to be a good defensive team.
"We have a long way to go, and we haven't even gotten to where we even start thinking about how good it's going to be. But you have to have depth; I think when you talk about team defense, you have to have depth, and our best teams have been our deepest teams defensively. I think that's a big key.
"We'll have good size on the perimeter, and I think that can help your team defense as well. And then the inside defense, we've got good size. I think we're going to have the versatility to play a couple different ways defensively and do some things as we've done in the past that can be very good."
A healthy roster
Dixon was positively optimistic about the health of his roster on Thursday, particularly as it relates to Woodall and Moore, who were both offseason injury concerns. For his part, Woodall said he is well past any injuries.
"I'm not hurt. I'm 100%. I'm ready to go. I've been practicing and everything that the team has been doing. No setbacks. I'm fine."
Likewise, Dixon said that Moore appears to be fully recovered from the broken foot he suffered in the offseason.
"He couldn't do any shooting or running, so he was in the weight room working hard. He's always been a hard worker, there's no question, but when you take five months out of a guy's development, that's never a good thing. But I think he did as much as you can in that situation and I think he did a good job."
The passing of a legend
Dixon wasn't coaching at Pitt when Carroll H. "Beano" Cook was the Sports Information Director - he was still nine years away from birth when Cook took the job - but it is impossible for anyone connected with Pitt athletics or college sports to not know the legendary Cook, who passed away Wednesday night at the age of 81.
"There's a real sense of sorrow with the passing of Beano," Dixon said at the opening of his press conference. "I've been here 14 years and got to know him, but before coming here, you knew who Beano Cook was nationally.
"Since I've been here, he's been a great friend. It was always a quick one-liner or a quick comment that he'd give you in passing but he has just meant much to Pitt, a Pitt guy, but I first knew him nationally, and what a name he had made for himself nationally."
Pitt didn't just add freshmen to the roster this offseason. Beyond Adams, Robinson, and Chris Jones, the Panthers also landed Trey Zeigler when he decided to leave Central Michigan after leading the Chippewas in scoring last season.
Because he left Central Michigan after his father, former Pitt assistant Ernie Zeigler, was fired as head coach of the Chippewas, the NCAA ruled Zeigler eligible to play for the Panthers this season. That news excited Dixon and gives the team a boost for 2012-13.
"He's really a good passer, a good decision-maker. He's a good passer and a playmaker, similar to Brad in a lot of ways with his ability to get in the lane. You never quite know, but I did pick that up from the summer. He gets in the lane, he gets fouled, and he finishes well; that's probably his strengths.
"He's an experienced guy and we needed to get older. We have some freshmen, but they seem experienced, maybe beyond their years in some ways, for a couple different reasons. But adding a guy who has played a lot of minutes in college basketball was key, and I think that's good for him and good for everybody involved. He's a good passer and an unselfish player, and I think that's something that will spread as well to a team that has always passed the ball."
In two seasons at Central Michigan, Zeigler averaged 16 points and six rebounds per game while playing an average of 33 minutes.
The other big man
Much of the focus leading into this season will be on Pitt's centerpiece front-court players, freshman Steven Adams and senior Dante Taylor. And while those two will split the minutes at center and, to a certain extent, determine the team's success, Dixon also likes the other center on the team, sophomore Malcolm Gilbert.
"He had a great summer. I thought he played really well in the summer workouts that we had. He can really run, and we can use that. He's a good defender, and we keep pushing him to be a little bit more physical. But he's getting better. He's developing and he's showing signs; I think it's just putting that out there for 40 straight minutes or an entire practice or days in a row. That's what we're working on.
"He's going to be a good player for us, a really good player. He's a sophomore, and the intention was to redshirt him last year. That didn't occur. But I think he's going to develop into a great player for us. When that occurs, I don't know exactly. But he will be a good player for us."
Dixon said that a redshirt is possible for Gilbert this season, but there are too many unknowns - like injuries - to say definitively whether that will happen.