PITTSBURGH (AP) - Jamel Artis understands the way it works. Spend two years listening to Jamie Dixon talk about defense and rebounding, at some point it starts creeping in whether you want it to or not.
Sure, the Pittsburgh coach appreciates Artis’ ability to score. The versatile forward and teammate Michael Young were often the only consistent offensive options on a team that went 19-15 last season and missed the NCAA tournament for only the second time in Dixon’s 12-year tenure.
What Dixon would like to see from Artis - and really from everyone else in a program that hasn’t made it past the first weekend of the NCAAs in six years - is a little more attention to detail on the other end of the floor. Making shots is great. Forcing opponents to miss them, and just as importantly chasing the ball down once it clangs off the rim, is a necessity.
“It’s what we’ve been known for and it’s something we’ve done well year after year,” Dixon said. “We need to get back to that and it’s what we’re going to do.”
If the Panthers want to make inroads on the upper tier of the crowded ACC, they don’t really have a choice. Pitt limped to the finish line last winter, dropping its final five games, including a lifeless loss at home to George Washington in the first round of the NIT. It wasn’t what Artis or Young signed up for when they arrived on campus. Their ability to become defensive anchors may be the key to the Panthers getting back some of the grit that for so long served as their trademark.
“That’s something that I look forward to improving from last year,” Artis said. “It’s just being in the right place at the right time. We have to do more on defense, and that’s what it takes to win.”
Dixon went out and tried to get his two big men some help. Junior college transfer Rozelle Nix has shed more than 50 pounds last year from his 6-foot-11 frame, though at 300 pounds he still might need to drop a few more. Graduate transfer Alonzo Nelson-Ododa is second on Richmond’s career block list. Redshirt freshman swingman Cameron Johnson bulked up after a shoulder injury cut short a promising start last fall.
While Dixon insists the Panthers will be versatile, the one thing they’ll almost certainly have to be is tough after going just 8-10 in the ACC and a marginal 6-5 in games decided by five points or less.
Other things to look for as Pitt prepares to face Gonzaga in the season opener at Camp Butler Marine Corps Base in Okinawa, Japan.
HERE’S TO YOU, MR. ROBINSON: Senior point guard James Robinson has put together a steady if not spectacular career. He’d like to be a little more dynamic in his final season. Robinson underwent foot surgery in the offseason and will need time to get into shape. Robinson will need to become a bigger threat offensively to take some of the pressure off Artis and Young.
POWER UP: Young was forced to play out of position at center last year, fighting nobly against slower (but often bigger) players. He’ll be a power forward more often this season, allowing him to show off some range to go with one of the better post games in the ACC if not the country. “I felt like I was the little brother to the big brother (last year),” Young said. “But this year I’m looking forward to being the big brother to the little brother at the four.”
BIG BOY: Nix, whose half-brother Roosevelt is a fullback on the Pittsburgh Steelers, averaged 11.2 points and 9.5 rebounds at Pensacola State JC. He won’t get near those numbers for the Panthers, but if he can stay out of foul trouble he should free up Young to play extended minutes at power forward.
NEXT IN LINE: Damon Wilson appears to be the heir apparent to Robinson at the point. The 6-5, 200-pound Wilson has already won over Robinson.
“He’s quick and he’s confident about himself, so that’s a good thing,” Robinson said. “He may be in, I may be in. In practice we’re going to compete.”
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