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July 17, 2014

Regardless of the ability to help Pitt, can we at least agree that the best thing in the long-term for Joseph Uchebo was coming to Pitt and getting better medical help for rehabbing his knee.

In moments like these, it’s easy to forget Uchebo is still recovering from a devastating knee injury that put his basketball career on hold for almost two years.

But then he runs up the court with a noticeable hitch in his step, a clear reminder that his battle to get back to full health is not over.

“It still hurts,” said Uchebo, a native of Nigeria. “Sometimes when I’m running I feel the pain, but not like it used to be.”

The pain was so bad in the weeks after Uchebo collided knees with an opponent while playing for Chipola Community College in Marianna, Fla., that he could barely sleep at night.

But Uchebo said he continued to play for about two more weeks on the recommendation of team doctors.

“They told me it wasn’t that bad and I was happy to hear it wasn’t that bad,” he said. “But it was that bad; they just wanted me to play.

“As time goes, the truth starts coming out. You know, I was so [angry]. Like, is my basketball career going to end just like that? I was thinking about that every day, every night.”

Uchebo had to go through two microfracture knee surgeries. As fast as players come back from ACL tears, microfracture surgery is a far different animal. It is a much slower process, and a lot more time is involved. And there is no doubt that misdagnosing it back at the community college made it that much harder now to heal.

There seems to be some real gratitude by Uchebo to Pitt and Coach Jamie Dixon for not only taking the chance on him, but giving him the time to get better.

“We knew the injury was going to be something he’s going to have to overcome and we knew it was something that wasn’t going to happen overnight,” Dixon said. “We were willing to work with him and if we felt that he wasn’t able to play, we had told him we would take care of him otherwise.”

For Uchebo, the commitment from Pitt to see him through his injury has been the most gratifying experience with the program. He is ready to pay the Panthers back.

“They believe in me, better than I believed in them,” Uchebo said. “You know, if I am not getting better, I’m not giving them what they want. But if I get better, they know I’m going to give them what they want, 100 percent.”

Playing and dominating on the boards the way he has in the summer league is one thing. There’s a lot more space and less real battling inside. It’s encouraging and surely helps his confidence. But the real test comes when practices and games come. Can he handle physically and mentally the banging inside. Feeling a leg or even another knee against his knee. That has to be a scary sensation. To feel sudden and sharp contact against that knee.

It isn’t that Pitt’s season hinges on how far Uchebo comes along from his injury, there is no doubt he is part of the biggest question mark on the team. After Mike Young at power forward it is Derrick Randall, JUCO transfer Tyrone Haughton and Uchebo. Questions. Lots of questions abound.

Then there is incoming freshman Ryan Luther. He’s been playing in the summer league as well. He’s done well, but he is almost certainly heading for a redshirt. Both because of the position he plays and the need to get stronger. And just, in general, the change from high school to high major college ball.

“Getting acclimated to college and playing with D-I college athletes is a lot different from high school, so that’s really my main focus right now,” he said. “High school practices, no offense, they’re not even comparable to college practices. So that’s what I’m really trying to get down and get in shape for.”

A four-year starter at Hampton, Luther won’t be able to rely quite as heavily on his size against Atlantic Coast Conference competition.

“Just playing low and obviously getting stronger in the weight room are my main priorities,” Luther said. “And learning the system and how to play against guys who are all just as big or just as athletic as you, even moreso.”

Of team practices, Luther noticed the level of intensity in relation to what he is used to. The Pro-Am League and team practices are teaching him valuable lessons about the competitiveness of the college game.

“There are no breaks. If you take a rest, then your guy scores. If you do anything, you’re going to get exploited,” he said. “You can do that in high school and get away with it, but not in college.”

A four-year starter at Hampton, Luther won’t be able to rely quite as heavily on his size against Atlantic Coast Conference competition.

“Just playing low and obviously getting stronger in the weight room are my main priorities,” Luther said. “And learning the system and how to play against guys who are all just as big or just as athletic as you, even moreso.”

Of team practices, Luther noticed the level of intensity in relation to what he is used to. The Pro-Am League and team practices are teaching him valuable lessons about the competitiveness of the college game.

“There are no breaks. If you take a rest, then your guy scores. If you do anything, you’re going to get exploited,” he said. “You can do that in high school and get away with it, but not in college.”

That’s just in the summer league where the intensity was higher. That will be nothing compared to practices and the games. He doesn’t come out and say he is looking at a redshirt but it does seem like a tacit admission that he is aware he needs some more time.

At 6-8/6-9 he is still classified by some sites as a small forward. A very, very crowded spot. With his size he will likely get some opportunity to play at power forward, but will definitely need a year in the weight room to get stronger and work on his footwork to play inside more (not to mention work on rebounding).  I think in a year or so he will be an important cog on the team.





@Emel, You wrote correctly: “So if Young is the 5, then Jamie HAS TO adjust the offense…”

That’s exactly what Young has been promised. Zaratougda heard or read an interview with Young and posted:

“In an interview with Young he stated that Dixon has totally changed up the offense so that the C and PF positions are essentially interchangeable.”

link to cardiachill.com

Comment by Howard 07.21.14 @ 9:23 pm

As I here it now… Derrick Randall… got reinstated some time ago.

So, with that, we can look at a depth chart of:

C: Randall, Uchebo, Haughton
PF: Young, Artis
SF: Jeter, Durand, Jones
SG: Wright, Newkirk, Jones
PG: Robinson, Newkirk

With this, Jones plays the same role he played last year… probably not seeing the floor in tough games… unless someone can’t go or gets into foul trouble.

If Uchebo or Haughton excels significantly over the other, then the other will probably be along the lines of Jones.

Slim… may or may not get RSed… if he does not, then he would be a 3ball man off the bench, something which we will surely be in need of at Maui.

The thing about this lineup, is there is a question if we have enough scoring in the starting lineup, though we may see significant improvement from Robinson, Wright and Young.

Also, IMO Dixon would prefer to play Young at C and Jeter at PF, and he may just do that. But, if he does it will really screw up the depth chart.

Time will tell.

Comment by Zaratoughda 07.22.14 @ 9:56 pm

@Zaratoughda,

Thanks for the info that Randall will likely play in the Bahamas. I learn a lot from your comments and I enjoy reading your fan postings at Cardiac Hill.

As far as the starting lineup goes, I’m looking forward to the Bahamas trip. It should tell us whether Jeter will play the “4” or the “3”. I’m guessing “4.”

Comment by Howard 07.23.14 @ 7:03 am

Makes sense, don’t think Randall came back to the Burg if he wasn’t reinstated.

Scoring has been my main concern with this team since if you have JR & CW in the backcourt, that can be problematic. Got away with it last year since Lamar had the ball in his hands so much and was the catalyst for the offense. This year no Lamar.

I don’t expect any one player to take his role, but if Young, Newkirk & Durand Durand take the next step and Jeter is what I think he might be, we might get enough offense from that quartet along with scoring potential of Artis.

That’s why I think it’s critical for this group to play a more aggressive type defense to create more turnovers that lead to easier transition points.

Comment by Emel 07.23.14 @ 11:43 am

Oh and CW will get his 8-12 points a game, maybe more on nites when he’s “on” and feeling it.

Comment by Emel 07.23.14 @ 11:46 am

All of those guys could have beak out seasons, but all have some pretty big obstacles to over come.

Young – position, he could be hampered by playing out of position at the five. Jamie could adjust the offense, but guarding 5’s and rebounding could be a challenge.

Newkirk – James Robinson, Newkirk is a point guard. JR is the incumbent and Dixon loves him. Josh needs minutes and having to take a bac up role could limit his breakout.

Durand – health, even if his knee is 100%, he still will have to kick off a whole bunch of rust just to get back to where he was when he got hurt. So to think he’s going to make a big leap forward might be a bit unreasonable.

Jeter – new, rarely has anyone come in and been outstanding immediately. It takes time to figure out Pitt’s systems.

Sorry for glass half empty view, I am usually pretty optimistic this time of year. But I think we need to pump the breaks on our expectations, at least to start.

Comment by Boubacar Aw 07.23.14 @ 1:32 pm

Oh I agree Boubacar,

there are certainly more ‘if’s’ than certainties with this current group.

Could be JD’s most challenging season, but we do appear to have more than a few pieces to the jigsaw puzzle.

Question is, how long will it take, for those pieces for be put in their proper places.

Comment by Emel 07.23.14 @ 2:47 pm

A kid who has been overlooked to an extent is the subject of a nice piece by the Trib. Swingman Chris Jones.

link to triblive.com

Comment by Emel 07.23.14 @ 3:58 pm

Thanks for the good words Howard!

I try to post things that are at least worth thinking about.

The big question right now on the team, is whether Dixon starts Young at C, or if he starts Randall there.

If he starts Young at C, then he will most likely start Jeter at PF.

The problem I have with this, is we will be really light inside and would tend to get pushed around.

I would have LESS of a problem with this, is if he started.. Jamel Artis… at SF.

Jamel, would have good size for a SF and tends to take it to the hoop at times with some authority.. and some beef… and that would take a lot of pressure off of Young and Jeter.

The hope on this one though, is that Artis would defend a lot better at SF that he did last year at PF… where he tended to seem lost more often than not.

But, a front line of Young, Jeter and Artis, IMO would be pretty imposing.

With this, you could have Randall and Uchebo spell Young, Haughton and sometimes Artis would spell Jeter, and Jones and Durand, once he is up to speed, would spell Artis at SF.

But, I don’t think Dixon will give Artis a shot at SF… he didn’t play him there at all last year.

So, guess we will just have to see what he does decide on this.

Comment by Zaratoughda 07.24.14 @ 12:13 am

Robinson and Young’s team won the pro-am championship last night. It was a high scoring game: 115 to 109:

link to pittsburgh.scout.com

If Young is at the “5”, Pitt will have a center who can run, shoot and hit free throws.

Comment by Howard 07.24.14 @ 5:36 am

@Zaratougda. Your facts are correct, but I disagree with your conclusion when you wrote, “I don’t think Dixon will give Artis a shot at SF… he didn’t play him there at all last year.”

In my opinion, Dixon wasn’t about to teach Artis how to defend at the “3” last year when he was still teaching him how to defend at the “4.”

Dixon might even play Artis at the “3” during the Bahamas trip.

Comment by Howard 07.24.14 @ 5:49 am

If Young, Artis and Jeter play together, my guess is that Jeter would guard the 3, Young would guard the better of the other teams bigs and Artis would get the easier matchup. Jeter is quicker laterally and should be able to defend better on the perimeter than the other two.

Offensively, those three are pretty interchangeable. They all can shoot from the perimeter. They all have some dribble drive game. All can pass. Artis May have the best mid range scoring game. None are great in the post. All can pick n roll, pick and pop.

And just like we can’t pencil in Haughton just yet, we can’t count him out either. We just don’t know much about him yet. If he can come in and do what Birch did as a freshman, defend, block shots and rebound, he’ll be a good option at the 5. How likely is that? No clue.

Comment by Boubacar Aw 07.24.14 @ 10:27 am

Well, if Dixon was teaching Artis how to defend at the 4 last year, he didn’t do a very good job.

In the Florida game, we were hanging with them in the first half, but then Florida found a hole in our D and started exploiting it every time down the court… and I believe the hole… was Jamel Artis.

But, I think it is just a matter of Jamel feeling overmatched when playing PF. IMO, he sees himself as a SF… so IMO Dixon should give Jamel a real shot at playing the position and seeing how well he does… particularly if he is much better on the D side… he’s got the O.

I was thinking Artis at PF, because that is where he played last year, and Jeter at SF, because that is where he mostly played at Vandy. But, looking at the official roster, Sheldon is 1 inch taller than Jamel and 5 pounds heavier. They have Jamel listed at 220, which means he is another player that has shed some pounds… was listed at 230 last year.

I hope you are right and Dixon gives Jamel a real shot at SF in the Bahamas trip. Time will tell.

Comment by Zaratoughda 07.24.14 @ 10:30 am

Boubacar….

I remember one game last year, where we needed points down the stretch, and Artis was bringing more O than Young but Young was defending better, and Dixon decided to double the low post and with that, he figured Artis could handle that and so he put him in there for his O and, the other team got the ball down to the low post and Artis came over for the double and…. Artis’ D was so loose that the opposing big just split him and Zanna and laid the ball in.

Artis… just seems lost on the D side. Doesn’t seem to know what he should be doing… and playing real loose… this is as opposed to Young who made some freshman mistakes out there but… otherwise held his own.

I have no idea if Artis could defend better at SF. But, I would like to see him get a shot there as his D was really bad at PF last year.

Assuming Dixon starts Young at C… and even Randall is more PF sized than C sized… then the doubling of the low post will be an important part of our D and, I haven’t seen Jeter play yet but, my guess is he would be much better at doing that than Artis.. and maybe even better at that than Young.

As far as Haughton is concerned… he played PF in JUCO but Dixon says he is a C (at least in Dixon’s system). But, Dixon does still have the option of playing Haughton at PF… as he is familiar with the position and, like Birch, should be able to do his shot blocking and rebounding from there.

Yeah, we will just have to see what Dixon does.

Comment by Zaratoughda 07.24.14 @ 10:44 am

Our inside players were totally manhandled in the Florida game. Artis was pushed around like he was a featherweight. Stuffed a few times where he almost fell down.

Now I read in the Mike Young interview that both of them lost much much weight. Young had lost a bunch of weight before his freshman year previous to that and I thought he looked kinda of frail last year. Think I read he lost another 22 pounds which would put him lower than 220 now. Young said Artis lost 33 pounds which would put him at around 200. 6’7″ 200 lbs is a stick, so how do you a stick at PF.

I’m guessing JD must have told them to lose weight, with the idea we’re going to run more this year, with is fine by me.

As I don’t think we have the type of players to play halfcourt basketball and be successful, the way we want to be successful.

With the dropped weight these guys should be able to play more aggressive defense if that type of defense is drawn up for them. I see in the game last, Young and Robinson were doing some 2 man traps to cause turnovers and easy transition points. Let’s do it !

Comment by Emel 07.24.14 @ 11:17 am

On the official site, Young is listed at 235, which is 10 pounds less than last year, and Artis is listed at 220, which is also 10 pounds less than last year.

Uchebo, was 265 last year and now he is listed at 245. That is a 20 pound drop.

But yeah, going with light players has an advantage of being quicker but then again you tend to get pushed around by bigger teams. You want to strike the right balance, and have the flexibility to go either way.

Comment by Zaratoughda 07.24.14 @ 12:55 pm

Right, but one thing we know, they always fudge their heights & weights on the official press guide and the official website.

DeJuan Blair’s height being a good example and more recently Steve Adams.

Comment by Emel 07.24.14 @ 4:37 pm

@emel,

Thanks for reporting the traps that Young and Robinson did in the pro-am championship game. I expect that Young and Jeter will play that trapping game together inside this year. The fact that they are already friends won’t hurt their ability to work together.

Comment by Howard 07.24.14 @ 7:58 pm

By the way, I’m just elaborating on something that Zaratougda wrote in his comment on the interview with Young at Cardiac Hill:

“Also, towards the end [of last season] Dixon was really going to doubling the low post a lot to get away with the fact that he was going with an undersized C in Zanna, and that was working real good as we were getting turnovers when they tried to pass out of it. So, I would not be surprised if Dixon went big time with the doubling of the low post.”

Comment by Howard 07.24.14 @ 8:04 pm

Will Dixon eventually get credit as the inventor of the “hedge-trap” defense?

Comment by Howard 07.24.14 @ 8:12 pm

Right Howard.

The low post doubling certainly worked against Colorado in a big way. With quicker big men you would think that could become a staple in Pitt’s defensive schemes.

As far as Dixon getting the credit, perhaps if the hedge-trap and JD gets us to the Final 4 and that is a main component to it.

Comment by Emel 07.25.14 @ 11:59 am

The doubling of the low post was working real good in the Florida game as well. They kept trying to get the ball into their C, Patrick Young or something like that, and it was getting doubled and we were getting turnovers out of it.

Our problem was that our offense wasn’t getting anywhere. They were schooled to stop Patterson and he wasn’t getting anywhere, Zanna was overmatched against P Young, and Robinson, Wright and Mike Young did not get anywhere. I think Wright was like 2 for 10 from the field.

Comment by Zaratoughda 07.26.14 @ 7:31 pm

First words on video as Dixon gives instructions for the open practice, “Be aggressive on the trap”:

link to pittsburghpanthers.com

Comment by Howard 07.26.14 @ 10:41 pm

You’ve gotta give Dixon credit for adapting to the strengths of his players. This team will run and trap — two things that Pitt rarely did just two years ago.

Comment by Howard 07.26.14 @ 10:51 pm

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