NEW YORK — Pitt doesn’t do pretty. Never has, and under Jamie Dixon it never will.
But good God, if the Panthers are able to continually rebound the way they have, then yes: Pitt will put itself in a position for a high seed in the NCAA tournament and have a chance to get to the Final Four. (Let’s save the Pitt/March talk, jokes and doubts for March, though.)
What’s clear as of now: the best rebounding team in the country keeps getting better, and as long as that’s the case, Pitt’s still in the class of the Big East’s best. It can plough its way to the rim in league games to remain respected and the toughest of outs.
My mea culpa comes now, because even if the Panthers haven’t played a terrific schedule, with all the youth they have, they still haven’t deviated from how they play. I didn’t think the Panthers were set to have another big year in the paint, thought they had backcourt problems and would take a significant step back. But it’s not looking like the case. Even if Pitt winds up not being as good this year as it was last, a “significant step back” seems highly unlikely now.
Jamie Dixon’s team looks really good. It was gruff and won despite only forcing four turnovers against Oklahoma State Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
You don’t need a lot of turnovers if you’re grabbing so many rebounds. Rebounds are really disguised as turnovers that require more work and less luck. The Panthers covet them like Christmas cookies. Heading into the game, Pitt had a nation-leading 45.5 offensive-rebounding percentage. It took down 61 percent (14 offensive boards) of second-chance snares against Oklahoma State, 43 rebounds in all.
“It’s ingrained in our program. We recruit guys with a nose for the ball, and our offense is predicated on offensive rebounding, too,” Dixon said. “I know that may sound strange or inconsistent, but good offense leads to good offensive rebounding.”
Dixon’s club did what it does best because it had to, since Travon Woodall did not play. Woodall’s the Pitt point guard who will be out until early January with a groin injury. Most teams would slag without a Woodall-type guy. Maybe Pitt does over the course of his absence, but it made just fine without him Saturday. One-time and still-for-hire Pitt 1 Ashton Gibbs was fine scoring 17 — but only getting two dimes. Gibbs played 39 minutes against that ab workout of a Pokes press.
“Ashton Gibbs just controls the game,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “And Nasir Robinson may be my favorite player. I was afraid I was scaring my team with the way I was hyping him up (to them). He’s not trying to be something that he’s not, and so many guys these days try to (prove to) guys, ‘I can shoot jump shots.’”
(Quick aside on Oklahoma State: Travis Ford joked about how he was sick of the Garden, since all his team’s losses (three) came in MSG this season.)
As for the early-season talk, Dixon gets it and concurs with the majority on this team. He doesn’t think they deserved to be talked about among the nation’s best, and it’s still a work-in-progress. Yeah, yeah, every coach spits out that rhetoric, but at least Dixon owns up to the rebounding personality of his team and admits it’s all of what they are right now. He said the turnovers are low because he doesn’t encourage his team to chase after steals when he considers rebounds more important.
“We were a little bit off the radar because of our youth, but we have six freshmen and it’s understandable,” Dixon said. “But we didn’t want to be one of those elite teams in November. We’ve got work to do, so we don’t feel we are [the best], so I’ve no problems with whoever’s saying it. This is a good win but we have a lot of work to do.”
Robinson, Khem Birch, Lamar Patterson — who arguably had his best game in a Pitt uniform, grabbing 10 board, scoring 12 points and tallying seven assists — and Dante Taylor (pictured above) are budding as a formidable forward/frontline foursome. They don’t all play at once, but the reliability of so many capable guys down low is something different from what Dixon’s had before, when there’s usually been one or two studs surrounded by undersized overachievers.
They need those bigs to continue to play ike this, because “no one is playing with three freshmen guards. I don’t recommend it,” Dixon said. “We’re fighting through some things, but I’ve liked how we’ve responded.”
The schedule gets tougher soon, but so far Pitt’s not shown any true sign of dropping off or defaulting from what it’s been about with Dixon.