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November 2, 2013

On to the 'X' one

Watching Pitt dismantle Slippery Rock 96-60 Friday evening was a lesson in how big preparation and development can be at this level of basketball. Last Friday Pitt struggled mightily to put away a game UC-San Diego squad.

"The Rock" is a better team than UC-San Diego - how cool is it that they can legitimately call themselves that? I mean "The Rock?" That's pretty much the dopest thing ever! And it's so much nicer to hear "The Rock" and think of a really good D-2 squad that hoops right down the road than that decrepit new arena in sensational downtown Newark. I think The Rock in Newark should be rechristened - how about "The house that Gonzo built and then simultaneously attempted to burn down?" Too much?

I sincerely apologize for that digression.

As I was saying, Slippery Rock is a really good D-2 team that had Southern Miss on their heels Tuesday night. And Pitt destroyed them. They did it with a core group of players that Jamie Dixon trusts more than any on his roster.

Lamar Patterson, Talib Zanna, James Robinson and Cameron Wright combined for 50 points, 22 rebounds, 12 assists and only 5 turnovers on 17-32 shooting. Heck, the quartet even sank 13-of-17 free throws. If that crew can give consistent efforts like that, Pitt has a chance to be pretty damn good...if the X-factor comes through like he did tonight.

One problem Pitt's had in the past few years has been guys either not knowing or not accepting their roles. Durand Johnson came off the bench Friday night to score 21 points while grabbing 5 rebounds and guarding his man very effectively.

Johnson is the Pitt player with the most scoring ability on the roster...it's really not even close. And that's not faint praise. Johnson can flat-out ball. Friday night he did three things that made me feel much better about his chances to stay on the floor and contribute heavily this season.

One, he attacked.

Johnson is a fearless three-point shooter, but sometimes guys who start to hit 3's stop doing anything else. Against Slippery Rock, Johnson showed he understands that he needs to attack. He shot 7-of-13 from the floor, 4-of-7 from the arc, and 3-of-4 from the charity stripe.

Two, he still took his wide-open looks without hesitation. Anyone who's watched Pitt the last few years has cringed at the number of wide open looks that have been passed up or hesitated on. The third thing on the list is the most important by far. Johnson explained his role with exuberance in the post-game presser.

"I think I have a big opportunity to come off the bench and bring that energy, bring that spark," said Johnson. "I kind of see myself as the guy that picks everybody up when he comes in and brings that energy to the equation. Cam and I always talk just to bring energy, stay positive out there and be ready when your name is called." In other words, the kid's head is exactly where it needs to be. Somebody buy the kid a pit bull named Brooklyn and we can call him Vinnie Johnson part deux.

He's not worrying about starting. He's worried about sparking, about bringing energy, and most importantly about buckets. Jamie Dixon made a point of talking about Johnson's rebound total after the game. He did it without talking about any other part of Johnson's game.

"We need him to rebound well from his position," said Dixon. "That's something he hasn't done in the past but he's been doing it really well in practice and he did it tonight." So Johnson is keeping his coach happy early. Here's hoping it continues.

Wright played really well. Patterson too. Robinson was solid. Zanna was Zanna (14 and 8 with 3 blocks). But Johnson was the spark.

And there's another X-factor on the roster as well, a player that mirrors Johnson's ability, but mainly in the post - Mike Young.

If Johnson and Young can play to their ability on five or six nights, while the rest of the crew plays steady and consistent, Pitt may surprise some folks.

Up next - Savannah State.




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