The Pitt basketball team tipped off the 2011-12 season, of sorts, by holding its annual media day at the Petersen Events Center on Thursday.
The team got a dose of some bad news, as they announced senior forward Nasir Robinson will miss the first month of the season with a knee injury. Robinson also missed the first three games of the season, recovering from a tear in his right meniscus. He had surgery to repair that, returned to the lineup three games in against Maryland, then returned to the starting lineup in time for Big East play.
This injury is being classified as a right knee injury—the same knee—but Dixon said in his media day address, that he doesn't believe Robinson has a tear in that knee. He does expect Robinson to be back by the time Pitt opens the regular season against Albany on November 11.
"He hasn't had any problems with (his right knee) this summer or fall," Dixon said. "He had some pain the other day. We're going to take a look at it tomorrow. They don't believe it's a tear, but there is discomfort."
In Robinson's absence, Talib Zanna could start in his spot as he did as a redshirt freshman. Dixon feels even more confident with Zanna's ability to start and fill in, being that Zanna has a full year of experience under his belt.
"He's really had a good offseason," Dixon said of Zanna. "I've been real impressed with him. His development is key. He's had a great offseason. I'm really happy with how he worked. Either way, he was ready to go this year."
Lamar Patterson is also a possibility at that power forward position. When it was determined that Robinson would miss these first few weeks, Patterson was moved to workout with the forwards—a group of players that includes Khem Birch, Zanna, and big men Dante Taylor and Malcolm Gilbert.
"We'll have to change some things around as far as minutes," Dixon said. "We've got (walk-on) Aron Nwokwo to practice there as well. Khem (Birch), Dante (Taylor) and Malcolm (Gilbert) can all play together, along with Talib (Zanna). We had been looking at that for situations like this. Most of those guys always all played center during their entire high school career.
"I needed six guys to be post guys, and Lamar was one of those six. Lamar has played that spot before. He's given us that before, and he has the versatility and smarts to handle multiple spots as well."
Dixon admitted that his team looks young on paper, but doesn't feel his team deserves the label of being a ‘young team.' Pitt has six freshmen on the team that includes redshirt freshmen Cameron Wright and Isaiah Epps. True freshmen Malcolm Gilbert, Khem Birch, John Johnson and Durand Johnson fill out that freshman class. Dixon said he's been impressed with the progress that Gilbert and Birch have made in offseason workouts. He cited the fact that both players have added 10 to 15 pounds.
"We won't ever use (being young) as an excuse," Dixon said. "We have six freshmen, and most of them are guards. People will be right about how young we are, but we don't allow that (to be an excuse). The key will be the guys who are redshirts. Hopefully Isaiah and Cameron have picked up a lot from last year. Cameron has. I think Cameron is ready to go. He was healthy, and Isaiah had some injuries. I think Cameron is a guy that will be able to give us some good minutes, and I think Isaiah is playing good too.
"You can definitely see the difference between a redshirt freshman and a (true) freshman those first couple of weeks (of conditioning). Durand has some very good tools. He plays with a lot of energy. He's a good shooter when he takes the right shots. He's going to be a very good player. Those guys are key. We need some of the freshmen to give us some minutes. I think (John Johnson) is a tough kid, and has a desire to learn some things. He has a great work ethic. There's a real toughness and physicality to him for being a smaller kid. I like the attitude. I like the energy of them."
Gilbert comes in at about 240 pounds, while he says Birch started school just under 200.
"I'm real excited about (Birch) and Malcolm," Dixon added. "I did see them more in the summer league, with the change in the format. I think the important thing to mention is that they've been here for a month and a half. Khem has put on 10 pounds, and Malcolm has put on 14 pounds. It just goes to show what hard work, and being around guys that put in hard work can do. I think that is another reflection of our program."
With the graduation of starters Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee, a lot of the talk centered on who might replace those players. Travon Woodall had the most significant experience of his career last season, contributing in a three-player rotation at guard with starters Ashton Gibbs and Wanamaker. From the sounds of things, Taylor could start the season at the five, replacing McGhee.
Along the lines of that successful rotation of Gibbs, Woodall and Wanamaker came a balanced scoring approach. Despite the losses of those who graduated, Dixon sees no reason why this Pitt team can't have the same balanced-scoring approach.
"Lamar, J.J. (Moore); great offseasons," Dixon said. "Travon has had some injuries. I really like what Lamar and J.J. have done. Dante is coming into his own. It's wide-open. It always is. I think that's what keeps everyone hungry and working."
Though Taylor came in with lofty expectations, Dixon says his junior forward has had a good Pitt career to this point, and will continue to be a strong player for him.
"He's had a very good two years," Dixon said. "He's been a big part of two very good teams. I think (the expectations) helped him. I think it's a good thing for him. A guy that has that tag, it's never going to be enough for some. That's part of college basketball."
Dixon also knows that the freshman Birch is coming in with similar expectations as a McDonald's All-American. He feels Birch can come in and be a special player right away.
"He's going to be a very good player, just like Dante is," Dixon said. "He's playing for him and his family, and his teammates. That's how they get to where they are. Dante has had a very good two years. (Birch) knows he has to get better. He knows that, and that's what he's here to do."
As for Ashton Gibbs, who played this summer with Team USA at the World University Games in China, he talked about Gibbs working on his defense in the offseason. Gibbs has improved in some way each year. Dixon expects him to be a bigger contributor on the defensive end.
"That's what we talked about," Dixon said. "We really want to get better defensively on the perimeter. I think he is doing a better job of attacking the basket and drawing other people. That will allow him to find open guys. Those were the two biggest things we talked about. Just watching some film, I saw him with a real focus on the defensive side."