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Durand Johnson Is Key To Panthers' Success





The Pittsburgh Panthers are once again flying under the radar in the preseason college basketball polls. Unranked in the USA TODAY Coaches poll (36 votes), the key to the Panthers’ success this season will be a healthy Durand Johnson.

Losing this dynamic 3-point shooter hurt the Panthers last season. Johnson tore his ACL and meniscus in his right knee on a drive to the basket against Wake Forest on January 11. He was Pitt’s spark plug as the sixth man, adding much-needed offense, especially the three-ball. He hit at least one 3-pointer in 11 of the 16 games he played in last season. That included eight straight games with a three before he tore his knee up. He averaged nearly nine points a game off the bench in 16 games, and hauled in three rebounds per game with 1.4 assists per contest.

This season, the redshirt junior from Baltimore, Maryland is healthy and should be a key piece of the Pitt lineup. With Pitt’s depth at guard (point guards James Robinson and Josh Newkirk, along with shooting guard Cameron Wright), Johnson may be used off the bench again for a big offensive spark. He was able to play 28 of the 32 minutes in the Blue-Gold scrimmage last Sunday, scoring seven points. It was his first live action since tearing his ACL in January, and coach Jamie Dixon seems happy with his progress.

Johnson can ignite this offense with his energy, enthusiasm and, of course, his 3-point shooting. It is something Pitt could have used down the stretch last season as well in the postseason tournaments. With Johnson healthy, the Panthers were 15-1. After his injury, the team went 11-9. The Panthers’ offense was stagnant at times and often struggled to even get off a shot in key possessions. Johnson has no problem letting it fly, a refreshing change of pace for an offense that tends to be a little too patient.

With Robinson, Newkirk and Wright in the backcourt, along with impressive youth underneath in forwards Michael Young and Jamel Artis, it may be hard for Johnson to crack the starting lineup. But that’s okay — he is much more valuable to the Panthers providing a boost off the bench. Wherever he plays, Pitt will be a much better team with a healthy Johnson on the team.

The Panthers open up the exhibition season against Indiana University of Pennsylvania on Halloween. Their first regular season game is on November 14 when they host Niagara.

 

Nate Vandergrift is a sports writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on twitter@natevandergrift, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.

The Pittsburgh Panthers have a strong squad, and Durand Johnson will be the key piece.

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