Pittsburgh Panthers Coach Jamie Dixon is determined to improve the defense of a team that gave up more points per game in the Big East than anybody a season ago. Even if it means doing something he’s never done before.
Last year, the Panthers missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Dixon in large part due to the team’s inability to defend the opposition. Pittsburgh averaged the worst scoring total in the conference giving up 69.2 points a game. This year Dixon has opened camp by sending a message to his players, inserting two freshmen into the starting line-up over proven experienced players in two exhibition games.
The starters from the preseason aren’t likely to change once season kicks off for Pittsburgh on Friday. If things do remain the same, it’ll be the first time Dixon has ever started two freshmen to begin a season in his ten years with the program.
Dixon is known as a coach who takes pride in having a team with a reputation for a tough, in-your-face defense. In previous seasons the Panthers had been known as some of the best defenders in the nation, intimidating with their size, toughness and ability to work together as a unit. It resulted in eight straight trips to the NCAA Tournament including Elite Eight and two Sweet Sixteen appearances.
The starters for the Panthers include juniors Lamar Patterson, Talib Zanna, senior Troy Woodall and freshmen center Steven Adams and point guard James Robinson.
Adams has received a lot of attention entering the season and being inserted into the starting line-up was to be expected. He’s struggled offensively in two preseason games shooting only 5 for 14 but has still rebounded exceptionally well. Dixon isn’t concerned about his offensive struggles as he believes Adams just needs more time to get comfortable with the college game.
Senior Dante Taylor will push Adams for the starting center position as he’s considered one of the team’s best defenders. This gives Dixon options if Adams struggles early into the season, but the potential upside in the freshman is too great to have him come off the bench to start the year.
The real surprise in Dixon starting two freshmen comes with placing Robinson in the starting point guard role, moving last year’s point guard, Woodall, to shooting guard. It was greatly expected that Woodall would start at point and Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler would be the other starting guard in the Panthers backcourt. After all, Woodall returns after averaging 6.1 assists as a junior while Ziegler had 15.8 points and 6.7 rebounds as a sophomore last season.
Regardless, Dixon believes the 6-foot-3 Robinson and 6-foot Woodall provide Pittsburgh its strongest defensive backcourt. Robinson is a big guard who showed he challenges the opposition and expects his teammates to do so as well. His in-your-face attitude gives him a big edge over the softer Ziegler despite Ziegler’s experience and size advantage.
“We’re trying to get the best defenders out there,” Dixon told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the first exhibition game. “We think Tray and James are probably the best two.”
That’s not the only thing Pittsburgh is trying to do, the Panthers are trying to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Starting two freshmen to begin the season just might be the first step to doing so.