Cardiac Hill Exclusive: Jamie Dixon thinks Pitt may be turning the corner

USA TODAY Sports

Josh Verlin, the owner and co-founder of the popular site, City of Basketball Love, attended the Pitt-Villanova game this week as a media member. After the victory, he attended the post-game press conference with Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon. and put together a great feature just for us. Follow his work at City of Basketball love and be sure to follow him on Twitter @jmverlin.

Jamie Dixon thinks Pitt might finally be clicking.

It only took the team about 10 weeks longer than he expected.

The Panthers aren’t off to their greatest start under Dixon at 14-4 overall (2-3 Big East), but a fairly young team with a lot of new pieces wasn’t going to gel immediately. After two consecutive Big East road wins, the 10th-year head coach showed some guarded optimism that the team he was hoping to see all along was finally starting to emerge.

“I wish it was figured out in September and October, but that’s why we play and that’s why we practice and it says a lot about us, where we’re at now,” Dixon said. “I hope this is something we can build off of.”

Though there is experience throughout the roster, the fact remains that two freshmen--James Robinson and Steven Adams--have started since opening day for Dixon and his staff. Include a new transfer and a redshirt freshman who are both also averaging double-digit minutes this season, and it shouldn’t be too surprising that there would be room to improve.

“I haven’t talked about youth,” said Dixon, now in his 14th year overall at the school. “We’d said we need to be the team that we want to be right away, and it hasn’t happened yet. We’re right there...I think we’re a good team, I think we’re getting better.”

A big reason for Dixon’s good mood after the Panthers’ 58-43 win over Villanova on Wednesday--eight days after a 28-point dismantling at then-No. 17 Georgetown--was the play of his bench, namely reserves Trey Zeigler, the transfer and Durand Johnson, the redshirt freshman. Both guards scored 13 points, which, their best efforts at the school, with Zeigler adding six rebounds in a season-high 25 minutes while Johnson hit the teams’ only three 3-pointers while adding in two steals on the defensive end.

“You’re talking about two new guys that have gone through some growing pains, as would be expected, and hopefully they’re making those steps,” Dixon said “You talk about the four new guys--James, Steve, Durand and Zig--those are four guys that are playing significant minutes and we’re hoping that they continue to improve and get better. This was a big step in that direction, I think, for both of those guys.”

Zeigler was expected to make a big impact when he chose to transfer in from Central Michigan, where he’d scored over 1000 points in just two seasons playing for his dad, Ernie, who was fired last March. He was granted a waiver to play at his new school immediately, but it’s certainly been an adjustment; Zeigler’s went from scoring 15.8 ppg in 31.8 mpg last season to 5.1 ppg in 15.5 mpg this year.

His 13 points against Villanova was the first time he’d hit double figures in scoring since the Panthers’ season opener back on Nov. 9.

“I told Zig before the game ‘you’re going to be in there early, be ready to go.’ I just had a feeling,” Dixon said. “He’s a new guy for us, it’s taken some time and hopefully this is his time of coming out and giving us what we need to get.”

Johnson (4.7 ppg, 12.6 mpg), a 6-6 Baltimore native, has hit 36.8 percent of his 3-pointers this year and now has double-digit scoring outputs in the Panthers’ last two games. After playing 10-or-fewer minutes in seven of Pitt’s 13 non-conference games, he’s played an average of 20.0 mpg in the teams’ last four contests.

It’s still not going to be an easy road for Pitt to make the NCAAs for the ninth time in 10 years under Dixon, with six games remaining against teams currently either ranked or receiving votes in the latest AP poll. A soft non-conference schedule won’t provide too much of a boost thanks to a five-point loss to Michigan, the only chance the Panthers had to make a statement before the Big East slate began.

But a coach who’s had plenty of success in the nation’s most difficult basketball conference (up to this year) knows what it’ll take for his team to get that conference record above .500.

“It’s no secret what you’ve got to do in our league,” Dixon said. “You’ve got to be able to rebound, and for whatever reason in our losses we haven’t rebounded and that’s generally what happens. We’ve got guys that I wish we had it figured out from day one but it’s a process.

“I’ve continually stressed defending and rebounding is the secret to playing time, and maybe it takes some guys a little while to figure that out. It’s a whole different level, where you played in high school or how you played somewhere else defensively, it’s not even comparable. It takes some time, you can preach it but they’ve got to go through the growing pains,” he added.

It’ll take a few more games to figure out if the Panthers have really finished their growing pains, but signs suggest that they still have more room for improvement. And there’s still plenty of basketball left to play.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics.

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