Big East will test inexperienced Pitt early

Dec 30, 2009 - 2:14 PM By ALAN ROBINSON AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Jamie Dixon wishes he could gradually break in the most inexperienced of the seven teams he's coached at Pitt. With five of the top 13 teams in the country, the Big East Conference doesn't allow any test drives.

After a successful but uneven conference debut, Dixon's mostly unproven collection of underclassmen quickly plunges into one of the most difficult opening stretches the Panthers have played since joining the conference in 1982.

First, it's No. 5 Syracuse on the road Saturday. Two days later, it's at Cincinnati, which was ranked earlier this season. On Jan. 13, it's No. 10 Connecticut - yes, on the road.

Even when the Panthers finally return home, the schedule doesn't lighten up, with previously ranked Louisville on Jan. 16 followed by No. 13 Georgetown on Jan. 20.

All this for a team that has only one returning starter, and he's missed eight games due to a broken foot.

"Everybody's going to have their tough stretch, and it is the Big East," Dixon said. "We've got to do some things better."

The Big East is rarely easy, but this schedule would test a top 10 team, which Pitt (11-2, 1-0 in Big East) clearly isn't right now despite its impressive record.

"This is a big stretch for us," said guard Jermaine Dixon, that lone returning starter. "It's an opportunity for us to show everyone where we are as a team. The Big East is a tough conference and everyone goes through tough stretches, but big games are why you come to a school like Pitt."

So far, Jamie Dixon likes his team's defensive intensity. The Panthers are No. 4 nationally in opponents' scoring average (55.9 points, an improvement of 8.5 from last season). They also are No. 12 in opponents' field goal percentage (36.8).

"We are making people miss shots," Dixon said. "I've told our guys we can be a very good defensive team. But there's improvement to be made."

The offense is uneven, and that's the big worry with so many experienced opponents upcoming. Ashton Gibbs (16.9 points) and Brad Wanamaker (12.8), a guard playing out of position at small forward, are the only two reliable scorers.

Freshman Dante Taylor is proving to be the most reliable rebounder - he has 73 despite restricted playing time - but it's evident the Panthers badly miss 2008-09 stars DeJuan Blair (12.3 rpg) and Sam Young (6.4) on the boards.

It didn't help that Jermaine Dixon missed eight games and 6-foot-6 forward Gilbert Brown (academic problems) sat out 11.

"Six months is six months," Jamie Dixon said, referring to Jermaine Dixon's layoff. "You can't get that back in two weeks."

Brown wasn't allowed to practice until the semester break, and he has a combined 17 points and five rebounds in two games. He averaged five points and three rebounds last season.

Dixon was unusually severe in his evaluation of Brown following the Panthers' 65-52 victory over DePaul on Monday, saying he needs to get better in a hurry.

"It's amazing. He's been here four years, and he comes back and we got to teach him all the same things over and over again," Dixon said. "There's a reason why we practice and he wasn't here to practice, and you can see (it). There's slippage and he needs to improve. There's no good thing about being out all that time. He will get better and he needs to play better."

Because of its challenging schedule, Pitt may find it difficult to play in a ninth consecutive NCAA tournament. Normally it takes a 10-8 record in the Big East or a long run in the conference tournament to get there.

"But we can beat anybody," Gibbs said.

For now, Jamie Dixon simply wants his team to play at the standards he expects. The Panthers, who have averaged 28 victories the last four seasons, aren't there yet. Of the top nine players, three are sophomores, two are juniors and two are freshmen.

"I probably have higher expectations than most," Jamie Dixon said. "Everybody tells me my standards are too high, but I believe we can and I believe we will get to that point. Our freshmen need to play like sophomores and our sophomores need to play like juniors. We're not close to where I think we can be. We have a lot of room to improve and I made that very clear to them."

No one has shouted yet.
Be the first!