We'll go a different route this time. Since Pitt's last regular season game--also the opener--was less than 48 hours ago, and since this Illinois-Chicago team hasn't played anyone yet, we'll turn our focus to some things we may have learned from watching this Pitt team on Monday, as well as a look at where things are heading from here.
BRAD WANAMAKER/ASHTON GIBBS
I couldn't help but think as Rhode Island was hitting its three pointers, and building an eight-point lead in the first half, how much Pitt needed a go-to guy to bring them back. I no sooner asked that question, before I saw the answer in Brad Wanamaker. Two years ago--as a player coming off the bench--Wanamaker has made tremendous progress into not only a leader, but as he proved Monday, a guy that can deliver in the clutch.
"(Brad) did some good things, he always has," Dixon said of Wanamaker. "Maybe some more people will talk about Brad. I went up to the Big East media day with a mission to tell people how good he was. Once again, I fell on deaf ears. Maybe now, that'll do it."
Trailing 36-28, Wanamaker was the catalyst behind a 9-0 run in the final 1:31 of the first half, which gave Pitt a 37-36 lead at the half. On that 9-0 run, Wanamaker had two of those field goals, and assisted on a jumper made by Gibbs. Gibbs completed the three-point play on his jumper--as he was fouled in the process, and also came up with a steal and assisted on Lamar Patterson's dunk at the buzzer. He tied a career-high with 24 points, and also led the team with eight assists.
"Basketball is a game that is about momentum and we were able to get some of it going toward the end of the first half," Gibbs said. "We came out and carried that momentum into the second half with Brad making some big shots for us down the stretch"
Gibbs came up with a couple dagger three-pointers that kept Rhode Island from getting back in the game. Rhode Island cut it to six with four minutes left, but Gibbs answered with a three-pointer at the top of the key, putting Pitt up by seven, its largest lead of the half. Gibbs finished with 22.
Pitt has had some good guard play over the years, but they have not had two guards with game-breaking ability since Brandin Knight and Julius Page were in the same backcourt. In other words, they haven't had a tandem on the same page at the same time. Some have been spot shooters (Ronald Ramon), some have been true point guards (Brandin Knight, Carl Krauser, Levance Fields). It's been awhile since we've seen two guards with the same kind of firepower in the same backcourt. It's just one game. Lets see if these two can play consistently this way for a whole season.
GARY McGHEE/DANTE TAYLOR/TALIB ZANNA
The big men were non-factors, but a big reason for that was Rhode Island attempting 31 three-pointers. The Rams only converted 10 other field goals--outside of the 14 three-pointers they converted--seven of which were field goals in the paint. Pitt had 38 points in the paint, but it wasn't exactly a dominating performance from Gary McGhee or Dante Taylor.
It was interesting to that that it was Talib Zanna--albeit for two exhibition games and now the opener--making the start at the four and not Taylor, in the absence of Nasir Robinson. Monday, it made sense. Zanna--though still raw, and still learning the game--has more natural instincts at grabbing rebounds, in addition to just being more athletic. Taylor, considering all the expectations he came here with, improved nicely as last season wore on. He wasn't much of a factor against Rhode Island. It's unfair to say that Zanna outplayed both McGhee and Taylor on Monday night, but he did make more plays, especially on the defensive end. Zanna has a lot of natural instincts. Coaches and players have praised his work ethic.
Zanna is on track to have a successful career at Pitt; there just might be some growing pains with that. We saw that Monday with athletic rebounds he was able to hold on to, followed by a misjudged rebound on the following possession. He did good, but he's still a work in progress--nonetheless a very promising work in progress. J.J. Richardson came in when the Panthers got in foul trouble. Interesting how Zanna--despite taking the redshirt last year--has surpassed Richardson, who came off the bench to play in 22 games a year ago.
"It was a great experience for me," Zanna said. "I came out and did what I do best, grabbed some rebounds for my team. We just need to keep playing better and be ready to play on Wednesday."
After watching Zanna grab 11 rebounds--some of which were long rebounds off missed jump shots, and other loose balls--this is where he shows off his instincts the most, and he has a good sense of where to be despite only playing organized basketball for a few years. Hope is not lost on Taylor. With other Pitt big men in the past (Aaron Gray, Gary McGhee), those two players showed the most progression between their sophomore and junior years. Taylor has more natural ability and is more coordinated than both of those players were at the same age. Taylor only played four minutes in the second half.
On a side note, with Delroy James--a 6-8 forward--converting 5-of-9 three-pointers, Nasir Robinson's absence was notable. It's no guarantee that Robinson would have made James go 4-of-9 or 0-of-9 from three-point range, but with that kind of mismatch, Robinson is the one post player with the most versatility to defend the perimeter. Zanna has the ability to in the future. It depends on where his career takes off from here--does he become strictly a post player, or can he also produce the mid-range jumpers and defend the perimeter.
Woodall had the most minutes of any player off the bench. Though he only produced seven points, he was an important piece--especially with Gilbert Brown sitting out the final 7:43 of the first half. With Woodall running the point, Pitt can move Gibbs over to the two. Then, it opens up Dixon to use Wanamaker, Brown or Patterson at the two or three. Patterson was the four in a couple of sets on Monday night, as well.
For example, when Brown got in foul trouble in the first half, Dixon didn't have to change his backcourt that much. When Woodall is running the point--Gibbs and Wanamaker can still make plays, which resulted in them having big games. In fact, it allows Gibbs to be in more position to score, which is natural for the two. Wanamaker is more of a true three.
Patterson looks like he could earn an interesting role with this team. It was unknown how many minutes he was going to get because of the depth, but based on his 22 minutes played last night, Dixon must have a lot of faith in him--as well as a plan for him, which is good to see.
Patterson can play any of the guard positions, and also played a little of the four against Rhode Island. The emphasis with him is on defense--as it is with all younger players on a Dixon-coached team, as they come up through the system. He wont' be counted on to score much, but if he contributes what he did Monday--five points, four rebounds--that's probably all Dixon is asking of him now. He came up with a couple big plays when his team needed him. One was the dunk at the end of the first half, and the other was a layup on a feed from Wanamaker, which kept Pitt's lead at seven in the second half.
Dixon said in his postgame that based on how the game was going, he was hoping to get J.J. Moore in the game, but hopes he can do so in the near future.
"We did some things with our rotation because of the game, and where we're at this early on in the season," Dixon said. "I think we'll have some other guys that will be playing--Nasir Robinson, J.J. Moore."
Based on numbers, and the minutes that Patterson was given, it's hard to see where and how much Moore will be given, with Brown back in the lineup. As Dixon said after the IUP exhibition, it all comes down to numbers.
"It's just numbers," Dixon said last Thursday night. "It's just where the numbers are right now. I thought (Moore) did some good things (against Northwood). He's working hard. He got on the glass for a couple rebounds (against IUP), so that was good to see."
Though it was just Brown's second game back, Brown's production took a nosedive when he got in foul trouble in the first half. He got tangled up with Rhode Island's Nikola Malesevic during a loose ball, and it got to Brown's head a little bit. After his second foul, he sat out the final seven minutes of the second half. He was able to get things going in the second half with an electrifying dunk--something he's done well over the years. He finished with 10 points, In the early going, he looked frustrated. He did get his swagger back in the second half thanks to that dunk.
PROBABLE ILLINOIS-CHICAGO LINEUP (2009-10 stats in parentheses)
Zavion Neely (12.2 ppg)
Robo Kreps (15.2 ppg, 84.7 FT %, team-best 56 three-pointers)
Paul Carter (transfer from Minnesota, 6.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg in 2009-10)
Brad Birton (45.1 FG %)
K.C. Robbins (28 blocks)