Hope everyone is enjoying the holiday with friends and family. I’m still counting down to the end of the year with the same football coach. Don’t want to get cocky, but I think Pitt will make it this year.
You’ll be forgiven for skipping the Kennesaw St.-Pitt game. Even more so, if you watched but didn’t listen closely to the broadcast itself.
During the game, the play-by-play guy, Jeff Hathhorn commented to Julius Page about the injuries to Dante Taylor and Durand Johnson by calling it a concern, because Pitt “only” played 10 players in the rotation. There was a pregnant pause as Page must have been searching for the words. Finally he very gently told Hatthorn that Pitt is playing with some ridiculous depth to go 10-deep.
[As an aside, Julius Page acquitted himself well as color analyst. He just has to drop saying "most definitely" when he agrees with something his booth mate says.]
With a bench that is J.J. Moore, Dante Taylor, Cam Wright, Trey Zeigler and Durand Johnson; Pitt is giving 40% of its available minutes (80 out of 200 minutes) to the bench. No doubt it will shrink during conference play.
Where in years past Dixon has shortened his bench to an eight-man rotation for Big East play, the Pitt coach seems open to the idea of going 10-deep this season.
“Most games, you‘re probably going to see 10 guys out there,” Dixon said, later calling it “a good thing.”
“It gives us some options and keeps guys in the right positions. And I think the versatility of these guys will allow us to do some things, too.”
It’s also given a lot of confidence to the players coming off the bench. Both Durand Johnson and Cam Wright are showing a comfort and confidence level out there. Something that was apparent even with just a handful of games played in November.
Dixon said this is probably the deepest bench, in terms of scoring, that he has coached in his decade at Pitt. What might make or break the season is the development of wings Durand Johnson, Trey Zeigler and Cameron Wright.
Dixon is high on all three, but they are all still trying to find their niche in the rotation.
“Those guys will be key for us,” he said. “They’re right there. They can do some things. It just seems like they need minutes, some confidence. They’ve had some good minutes, some good production at times. Putting it together and being consistent will be the test here as they go forward. ‘Zeig’ is getting more and more comfortable, in better shape. Durand is getting a better understanding of what we’re looking for. We’re excited about those guys.”
The production off the bench is a far cry from what Dixon had to work with last season. Pitt’s reserves are outscoring opponents’ reserves, 174-44, in the first four games. The 174 points represent 45 percent of the team’s points. The reserves last season were not nearly as productive or consistent in their roles.
One of Dixon’s problems is finding enough time to go around and keep all of them happy.
“It’s a nice problem to have and that’s what good teams have,” Dixon said. “I felt at times last year I didn’t know who to put in. This time I have some options. It’s a nice rotation if we can keep everyone on the floor and out of foul trouble.”
Johnson has been developing nicely. The redshirt season helped get him mentally ready to be playing on this team. He’s embracing being a more rounded player.
“Coach Dixon is big on defense, so I focused on the defensive end and let the offense come to me,” Johnson said. “If you’re on the floor, you’ll get looks on the offensive end. Focusing on defense helped me out a lot. I just relax, take my time and let the game come to me. On the offensive end, Dixon talks about not forcing it. I’m not forcing it, playing my game and waiting for my time to come.”
Johnson could turn out to be an important player in the rotation. Dixon has admitted this will not be among his best 3-point shooting teams. Woodall likely is the team’s top perimeter threat, but there aren’t many other options beyond him and junior Lamar Patterson, who led the team with a 41 percent clip from behind the arc a year ago.
Johnson came to Pitt with the reputation as a strong outside shooter, and he has made 2 of his 3 attempts from behind the 3-point line this season. But he knows he won’t be able to win a permanent spot in the rotation unless he continues to contribute in other areas such as defense and rebounding.
“I don’t want to be known just as a shooter,” he said. “I want to be a guy who plays defense, mixes it up on offense, get guys involved and be an all-around player.”
I’ve been impressed with Johnson’s patience on offense. He still has some moments as you would expect, but he really does get it. That the ball will reach you on offense. If you have the best shot, then you can take it. As he develops over the next year or two, I can see him being one of the primary scorers.