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October 13, 2011

Media Day notebook

Here's a collection of news and notes from Pitt's Media Day on Thursday.


Biggest news of the day

The biggest news of Media Day was that senior power forward Nasir Robinson will be out 3-4 weeks after he has surgery on his right knee Friday. That's the same knee he had surgery on last year around this time, and he was back on the court in the Maryland game 22 days after surgery. So if this year's surgery follows suit, he should be back in time for the season opener against Albany on November 11.

But the team will still have to practice between now and then; that means redshirt sophomore Talib Zanna will get the call as the top power forward, which is a role he filled last season. Zanna did well in that situation and should be even better this year, but Jamie Dixon said that he expects all of the sophomores (even redshirt sophomores like Zanna).

"Him, Lamar Patterson, J.J. Moore, I've been really excited about what those guys have done. That's that freshman-to-sophomore year where we've seen guys make great strides in our program, and I think you can really see with those three guys.

"It remains to be seen [until] we get out on the floor, but their bodies, their work ethic, their attention to detail seems to be taken up a level, taken up a notch. Hopefully that continues when we start practice."

Similarly, Dixon is hoping to see good things from redshirt freshman guards Isaiah Epps and Cameron Wright.

"Hopefully Isaiah and Cameron picked up a lot from last year, and I think Cameron has. I think Cameron is ready to go."

Epps has dealt with injury issues, so the coaches will be interested to see what he can do with healthy, but Dixon said that he thinks Wright will be "a guy that's able to give us some good minutes."

For his part, Wright's looking forward to the challenge.

"Honestly, I just want to fit in wherever Coach Dixon puts me," he said. "I'm eager to play this year, I'm anxious, and I just want to be able to help and provide my talent to just help the team be successful this year.

"I feel like I can guard a one, two, and three, and I feel like I can play point guard if needed. I can definitely swing between those spots."


Youthful backcourt

Epps and Wright are two of the young guards Pitt will be counting on this season. The Panthers also have true freshmen John Johnson and Durand Johnson - no relation - at guard.

"Durand has some very good tools," Dixon said. "He's a guy that plays with a lot of energy and he's a good shooter when he takes the right shots, so he'll need to learn some things but he's going to be a very good player. No question about that."

Dixon saw plenty of the Greentree summer hoops league, and that means he saw John Johnson take the league by storm and average 16.1 points per game while playing in a rather un-Pitt style.

"Summer league is fun for everybody; I don't know that it's the best indicator of what guys are going to be," Dixon said. "But I think he's a tough kid and he'll learn things because he has a great desire and a great work ethic and a real toughness and physicality to him for a smaller kid. I think he is going to be a very good player."


Not just the young ones

Dixon admitted that Pitt will "need some of the freshmen to give us minutes," but there are older, more experienced players whose individual success will be even more critical to the Panthers' team success this season. And none may be more important that junior center Dante Taylor.

Taylor will take over for departed center Gary McGhee after spending the last two year as the top reserve under the basket. Dixon didn't deny that this is an important year for Taylor.

"I think he's ready to take a step," Dixon said. "He'll get more opportunities and more minutes because of Gary and his graduation. I think he has improved his mid-range jump shot; it's been there, but it's a quicker release now. He's more ready. Shot-preparation is more evident, the arc is a little bit better.

"He's going to get his points: offensive rebounds put-backs, running the floor dump-offs. On the offensive end I think he has shown some improvement."

Taylor said offense has been a focal point for him this offseason.

"I've been working hard on my game offensively. I think I can help out during the game offensively, being a skilled post guy."

And then there's defense. McGhee had a reputation as a strong defensive center, and Taylor will be expected to carry that torch this season.

"I definitely picked up a lot from Gary, because he was a great defensive big man, probably one of the hardest guys I've played against. He just told me to play big, play strong, and try to anticipate where the guys are going to go. I learned a lot from him over the years as far as defense."

According to Dixon, defense has been a strong point for Taylor.

"He's always been a good defender; very unique in that a freshman was a very good defender and got better last year as a defender and I think he's going to be very good for us this year as well . He was ahead of most kids on the defensive end, as far as big kids, as a freshman. On the interior defense, of course; the adjustment for some guys to be guarding on the perimeter is great.

"He's had a very good two years…he's been a big part of two very good teams. I know that doesn't seem like much, but it is. He is a very good teammate, he's a great player for us, and he has great respect from his teammates."


Burger time

Taylor came to Pitt with the distinction of being a McDonald's All-American, and that honor created certain expectations. Now Pitt has another McDonald's All-American in freshman center Khem Birch, and Dixon knows that expectations are likely to be the same.

"He's going to be a very good player, just like Dante is," Dixon said. "He's playing for him and his family; that's first and foremost, and his teammates. That's how they get to where they are and what they become.

"He knows he has to get better. If you ask him, the first thing that comes to his mind is not what he was called or what somebody writes about him; the first thing is he has to get better. That's his belief and he knows that. That's what he's here to do. What you've done in high school - and that's not even what you've done; that's just a label - has very little to do with what you become."

Chances are good that Birch will some time to become the imposing figure most expect him to be; in fact, Dixon expects that to be the case.

"We've seen over the years that guys get here and they get better. It may not be quick enough for some people, but we have patience and we know it's coming and we recognize that it takes times. That's an important part of a program: recognizing that it takes time for good players to play in good programs and for them to get to where they need to be and get to where they're going to be."


Keep improving

All Ashton Gibbs did for Pitt last year was lead the Panthers in scoring (16.8 ppg), playing time (32.8 mpg), three-point field goals (102), three-point shooting (49.0%), and free-throw shooting (88.9%). But Dixon thinks the senior guard has more room for improvement beyond being a better perimeter defender.

Dixon thinks Gibbs can do better offensively.

"I think he needs to do a better job of attacking the basket and drawing other people. That will allow him to kick and find open guys. Those are the two biggest things that we talked about once the season was over, but we've talked about those before.

"It's hard to do everything, but he's done a lot. That's for sure."

Gibbs knows he can improve on certain areas of his game, but he's looking to do something else on the court better.

"I just want to be a leader; that's something that's a part of my position and a part of my class, with me being a senior now. It starts with me, Travon (Woodall), and Nas, being the seniors here, and I think if we carry the team in a leadership role, everybody will follow it and we'll be fine."

Woodall will assume full-time point guard duties this season and figures to play the most minutes of his career.

"I'm going into this season like it's my last," he said. "I'm going out to leave everything on the floor."

Gibbs functioned as the primary point guard last season and Woodall worked off the bench. While the two will share the court most of the time this season, it won't necessarily be in the Woodall-point guard/Gibbs-shooting guard arrangement.

"I don't think we're going to have a designated 'one' point guard," Woodall said. "Even if I'm in the game, Ashton could bring the ball up because I know the position. In my opinion, if you don't know every position, then you don't know the plays.

"It's like a quarterback: you have to know what everybody's doing. In my opinion, you have to know when Coach Dixon is about to call the plays.


Local talent

Western Pennsylvania isn't known for producing basketball talent, and Pitt hasn't had a local recruit since DeJuan Blair in the class of 2007. But it turns out that Pitt has a local product among its current freshman class and didn't even know it.

"I did grow up in Cranberry for four years," freshman center Malcolm Gilbert said Thursday. "I was a toddler, I can't remember, but I was about three years old and I stayed there for about four years. Man, has it grown since then."

Gilbert said that his father commuted to Pittsburgh to work at Mellon Bank before the family moved to Delaware. Now he's back in western Pennsylvania and looking forward to having a role on the 2011-12 Pitt basketball team.

"I expect to go hard, help my team out as much as I can, be a good contributor to the team, be a great teammate, and be a great listener to the coaches and be able to execute and do what they say. Just bring the same level of confidence and performance as last year and do the best we can for this season."


Bits and pieces

- Dixon said redshirt sophomore Lamar Patterson will see time at small forward and power forward.

- Khem Birch has added 10 pounds in the last month and a half (after showing up at Pitt "under 200," according to Dixon); fellow freshman center Malcolm Gilbert has added 14 pounds.

- While Dixon isn't basing his personnel decisions on what he saw in the Greentree summer league, he did like what he saw from his freshman big men, saying that Gilbert "played well" and Birch "got better as the summer went on."

- Birch said his first focus is defense, and once that comes he'll work to get better on offense.

- Gibbs tested the NBA waters after last season but decided to come back to Pitt for his senior season. So he's got a very determined approach to this year, saying "it's now or never."


And finally...

Dixon was asked several questions about the Big East and Pitt's move to the ACC at Media Day on Thursday. Here are his collected responses to those questions.

"I used the term 'bittersweet' because the Big East has been so great for us, and the move is going to be tough in that regard, leaving what has been very good to us, great memories, and going to another conference."

"We have no idea when it will be. We've talked about it to our team, we've talked about it to recruits; we don't know when it will be, so it doesn't do us any good to think about the transition. Right now we're trying to be the best team we can in the Big East. When that occurs, it's beyond our control."

"We've got one goal, and that's to be the best team we can be in the Big East this year."

"The whole thing with the Big East is hard for me. I haven't been around as much as some guys; like, Coach Boeheim spoke about it, he's been there for 30 years. My memories aren't as deep as his, and he built the conference, so he's got more of a feel, more of a history. But the whole thing is tough, because…when we arrived here 13 years ago, it wasn't the best basketball conference in the country. In the last four or five years, it has developed into the best basketball conference in the country. That's been fun to watch and fun to be a part of. So to see it break up, it's hard; there's no question about it. There are some things that we can't control; the TV, the football, and all the things that go with it, just some things are out of our control."

"I'm sad about TCU, but now it looks like they're in the Big 12. I think a lot of the schools are going to end up in better situations than they once were, and that's something that will come out of it. It may take some time, but I think that they will. That's our hope."

"When people ask about what's going to happen with the conference and the timing of it, we want the Big East to do well. When it's ready and it's the right time for the Big East and us to move on and Syracuse to move on, that's when we'll move on. I think that's the right way to handle it, because we don't have any ill will to the Big East obviously; we have only great memories and thankfulness for what they've done to us."

"When it's time and the Big East feels it's time and the best situation for them and for us to move on, that'll be the time that we're ready to go to the ACC."

"There are whole athletic departments involved in this. I think part of being at Pitt and being in an athletic department is looking at the whole picture and recognizing it's just not about us and we're just one part of an athletic department and one part of a university. We try to be the best athletic department we can as a whole and the best university we can be as a whole, and it's been great to watch it grow on both sides, both as a university and an athletic department."

"We can't thank the Big East enough for everything they've given us. We wouldn't be where we are without the Big East. Like I said, we're not the most important thing in this. We're in a great basketball league, but our job will be to make the ACC the best basketball league in the country once we get there."

"I think we helped the Big East become the best basketball conference in the country, and that will be part of our goal once we go into the next conference."


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