One of the highlights from Thursday night's win over West Virginia was the play of Lamar Patterson and J.J. Richardson. Patterson reached double-figures for the first time in his career, as he finished with 11 points—one of four Pitt players in double-figures. He also had five assists and two blocked shots, playing in a multitude of positions. Richardson came off the bench for eight minutes, two blocks, two rebounds and a long-range jumper.
Patterson's play was most crucial to Pitt on Thursday night because Gilbert Brown—who had a game-high 11 points in the first half, which came on three three-pointers and a spectacular dunk off a drive from the wing—played just three minutes in the second half after picking up his third foul just before halftime, and fouling out just a few minutes to play.
What's nice to know is that in a big game, and a key player in foul trouble, that a freshman can step up on the big stage and deliver the way Patterson did.
"The future looks real bright," Patterson said. "And, not even just because we have a coach like coach Dixon. He's not going to take slack from nobody. He never does. Just the players we have, the players coming in, it looks real bright."
Though Richardson is a sophomore, and played in 22 games last year where he averaged just under four minutes a game he too is a part of that future that Patterson talks about. Richardson feels the progress that his class, and the freshman class has made, is a tribute to the senior leadership.
"They do a lot of things that they've been through, whether it be sitting out and waiting their turn," Richardson said. "They take us under their wing. They let us know we have to wait our time, and to be ready at all times, and just be ready to go. With them, and telling us we're so close, it's like a family. If anybody goes down or the opportunity is given to someone else, then we'll all be ready to step up."
There have been constant comparisons with the 2009 team and this 2011 team, which is based partially on the win total. What's different about this team is the depth, and the way the depth contributes. For example, there are a combined six players who are either freshmen or sophomores on this current team. Only one of them averages less than 10 minutes a game. In 2009, that team also had a combination of six sophomores (Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee, Travon Woodall, Ashton Gibbs, Nasir Robinson). Only three of those players (Brown, Wanamaker, Gibbs) averaged more than 10 minutes a game.
Players like Wanamaker, McGhee and Brown were all sophomores on that team, yet they were hardly pivotal factors. They contributed minutes, but with the star value that Levance Fields, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair provided, there wasn't a need for them to provide much or even have a role.
Brown played in 37 games of his redshirt freshman year during the 2007-08 season, and even started 15 games—moving in to the starting lineup while other players were moved around to compensate for the absence of an injured Fields. During that 15-game stretch where he started, Brown reached double-figures in five of those games. Wanamaker averaged 11 minutes in a total of 30 games played that season, and shot just 3-of-18 (16.7%) from three-point range. Today, Wanamaker is 15-of-41 (36.6%). McGhee played in 21 games as a true freshman, and averaged 4.9 minutes a game.
Two years later, with Wanamaker, Brown, McGhee, Gibbs and Robinson as the starters—all of whom have had their share of big games this season—there's more room on this team than there was two years ago, to contribute or have a role. The first players to take notice of this are those same seniors, who look back to their freshman year, and understand the work it takes to work their way up through the system.
"We knew it would happen (for Patterson)," Wanamaker said. "We always joke with him, telling him he's a practice player, but we're only joking around. We knew he would come around. He works hard every day. We're just happy for him."
"He puts in a lot of work," Brown added. "He's been having great practices. It's a great feeling to finally see him put it all together out there on the court."
Pitt has three freshman who have contributed this season. Patterson leads the way with 26 games, and an average of 12.6 minutes a game—which has been consistent throughout the season. Before his first double-digit game on Thursday, Patterson had other bright spots this season such as key three-pointers against Providence and DePaul, and a career-high six rebounds at Rutgers. Moore has appeared in 20 games this season, and has hit double-figures three times as a true freshman. Zanna started the first 13 games of the season, before Robinson was able to return to the lineup for the UConn game. He has hit double-figures in four games, including 11 just last week against USF. In just his fourth collegiate game, he finished with a double-double against Maryland at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York.
"Between (Patterson) and J.J. Moore, we have two very good wingmen that come off the bench," Dixon said. "I'm really excited about their futures."
This 2011 freshman class already has eight total games in double-figures, spread out evenly. The 2008 freshmen had five games in double-figures, all five coming from Brown.
Friday, Dixon announced that these three seniors—Brown, McGhee and Wanamaker—were all selected for the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, an annual all-star game that showcases the top 64 senior basketball players in the country in a series of all-star games. Being that all three players made significant strides through their Pitt careers, it's tough, but impressive for Dixon to make comparisons to the current seniors when they were freshmen, compared to the current freshmen.
"All three of these guys, to get invited to this event, win the number of games you're talking about," Dixon said. "To even think about comparing them—these three freshmen to those guys—is a good thing."