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September 27, 2013The Pitt Panthers have gone from the premier basketball conference in the country to, well, the premier basketball conference in the country.
At least that's how Jamie Dixon sees it. Thursday at the Petersen Events Center, Dixon called the Atlantic Coast Conference "the best possible place" for not just his team but the entire athletic department as all Pitt teams begin their first seasons of ACC play.
"I remember when the Big East became that 16-team [conference] that everybody thought wasn't going to work; well, it worked really well for 10 years," Dixon said of the Panthers' former league being a good sign for the new 16-team ACC.
"I think if you talk to [ACC officials], they wanted to have the best basketball conference in the country and that's why they made the moves that they did and we're happy to be a part of it. Going from the best to the best is a good thing to do."
While some of Pitt's old foes from the Big East - Syracuse, Notre Dame and, beginning in 2014-2015, Louisville - will rejoin them in the ACC, Dixon said Pitt's previous league and new league are not as different stylistically as many make them out to be.
"The thing about our conference over the years, having so many teams, you saw so many styles," Dixon said. "That's what's going to happen to the ACC now.
"Yeah, it was maybe a little easier to generalize when they had eight teams in the conference and say, 'They played this way,' but now when you're going to 16 teams I think the greatest strength of our [former] conference is we saw everything. We saw 2-3 zones, we saw matchup zones, we saw man-to-man, we saw pressing in our conference. I think that's something you'll see now in the ACC, where you're going to see all kinds of styles."
And when did it finally hit Dixon that his program had really moved to a new league? He said that realization came when he and some of the players traveled to Durham, N.C., to watch the Pitt football team play Duke in a conference game this past weekend.
"It's starting to resonate now," Dixon said. "I think now it's real. Sometimes we're like kids, we can't see six months ahead, it's a wait-until-we-get-there-type thing."
First of all, it's Joseph, not Joe.
And second, Nigeria native Joseph Uchebo doesn't sound like a guy who will risk rushing back from a severe knee injury he sustained in January of 2012.
"We're still working on it, the knee is getting better, we're working hard for that with rehab every day," said Uchebo, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound junior college transfer who has three years of eligibility remaining.
After the initial injury, Uchebo said he continued to play through it for some time. That's why the rehabilitation process has been an especially long road for the soft-spoken center who did not play at all last season at Chipola College in Marianna, Fla.
He has not yet been cleared for contact but said he is running on the treadmill every day - "Not really strong like other guys, but we're getting close."
Dixon said "we hope" Uchebo will be able to help the team at some point this season.
"We're obviously being very patient with it, we're taking our time with it and there has been dramatic improvement," Dixon added.
"He's got three years of eligibility and we knew what we were getting ourselves into, we were aware of that."
Whether or not Uchebo will be healthy enough to contribute this season - "Hopefully," he said - the former North Carolina State recruit and high school teammate of freshman guard Josh Newkirk feels very comfortable in Oakland as a Panther.
"Coach [Dixon], he's cool, just amazing. I don't know how to describe about him, I just love it here," Uchebo said. "There's no doubt about that, I just love it here."
If it seems like college basketball season came early this year, that's because it did.
Pitt held its first official practice of the season today thanks to a new NCAA rule allowing teams to start practice 42 days before their first games - or two weeks earlier than before.
"We've got more access [to the players], but at the same time you don't want to wear down your guys so we'll spread out our practices," Dixon said, adding that he talked with a number of different teams about how they're approaching the earlier start date.
"You've got to get a feel for the team but I feel like we're pretty healthy so we're ready to jump right into it."
Nonetheless, there is still nearly a month until the Panthers even play their first exhibition game against UC-San Diego on Oct. 25.
"I think coaches got what they wanted," Dixon said. "The old saying, be careful what you wish for."
Dixon said he is pleased with the team's non-conference schedule, but stressed that some of the opponents were unpredictable given the nature of preseason tournaments.
Pitt was the first team to sign up for the Progressive Legends Classic Nov. 25-26 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Jimmy V Classic Dec. 17 at Madison Square Garden, according to Dixon. In Brooklyn, the Panthers will play Texas Tech followed by Houston or Stanford, and at the Garden they will play former Big East foe Cincinnati.
"Getting to New York is important to us, as always, we're going there twice," Dixon said. "You never know who you're going to get in these events. We signed up and it's always interesting."
He also noted the several West Coast teams on the schedule in Loyola Marymount, Fresno State and Cal-Poly.
"We just wanted to play some different teams. We tried to play the best teams from these conferences, the games that we can control," Dixon said.
Pitt's only four non-conference opponents that finished in the top half of their leagues last season are Lehigh, Savannah State, Cal-Poly and Albany. Fresno State and Loyola Marymount won five and one conference game, respectively.
As for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup with Penn State?
"The Big Ten game, you can't control that, you play who they give you," Dixon said, adding that the Big East/SEC Challenge was structured the same way.
All 31 regular-season games will be televised this season, with 17 slated for national broadcasts.
Double the scrimmage, double the fun
The Panthers will have their annual Blue-Gold scrimmage twice this year, meaning two chances for Pitt fans to get a glimpse of the team before exhibition play begins.
The first open intrasquad scrimmage will be Oct. 6 following the annual Maggie Dixon Heart Health Fair/Fan Fest. The health fair begins at 1 p.m. and the scrimmage begins at 3 p.m. Players from the men's and women's team will also sign autographs for fans.
The second scrimmage will tip off at 7 p.m. on Oct. 18 and will be followed by a pizza party for the Oakland Zoo. It will be broadcast on Pitt Panthers Television.
Both scrimmages are at the Petersen Events Center and admission is free.