Pitt completed its two-game exhibition schedule with a 101-33 win over LaRoche two weeks ago, followed by a 76-67 win over Kentucky Wesleyan on Monday night. Starting tonight, everything counts as the Panthers open the 2011-12 season against Albany tonight.
The Panthers were hit with a couple of minor obstacles in Monday night's win. First of all, they didn't expect to get Nasir Robinson back until tonight. Instead, Robinson started and played 10 minutes in the first half. While it was a knee surgery on October 14 that was to hold Robinson out of action, he made his return to the floor a few days earlier than expected. Unfortunately, Robinson left the game with a bloody nose. That allowed Talib Zanna to see a little more time than expected. Zanna played 29 minutes and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds.
Dixon also had to overcome the loss of Dante Taylor. Taylor picked up two fouls in the first four minutes, then sat out the remainder of the first half. He returned for the second half, finishing with four points and four rebounds in 15 total minutes of action.
"We had guys in foul trouble and with the bloody nose, so rotations are out the window," Dixon said.
The question of finding the right rotation might be a challenge in these first 13 non-conference games before the Panthers open up Big East play at Notre Dame on December 27. Dixon cited the challenge of moving players around in the absence of players like Robinson and Taylor. He downplayed the idea of finding his new rotation now.
"We don't have rotations in preseason or exhibition, we want to get the guys minutes obviously," Dixon said. "Rotations sound great until somebody gets in foul trouble or somebody gets hurt."
One position that expects to see less of a rotation is the guard position. Last year, Dixon could have three players—Travon Woodall, Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs—rotating at the two guard spots. Occasionally—as an added luxury—Dixon could move Gilbert Brown into one of the two guard spots. Though he might not have the same type of experience, he might not want to keep Woodall and Gibbs on the bench if at all. That, combined with the lack of experience behind them is one cause for the lack of rotation at the guard position. At the same time, he also has a chance to test certain players and challenge them to see if they can accept a role, or give starter-type minutes.
"It could be a rotation, you never know, somebody might step up," Gibbs said. "Going into last year, we were so experienced. You knew what to expect. This year, we're young, so somebody has to step up. We'll see. When the lights turn on, we'll see who's ready to play."
A player like Gibbs—who owns 64 career starts, and has already eclipsed the 1,000-point mark of his career—certainly helps with that. Gibbs started off his career playing in 35 games as a true freshman, averaging 4.3 points a game. He upped that number as a sophomore, starting all 34 games and averaging 15.7 points a game. He took it a step further last year, averaging 16.8 points a game in 30 starts. Is it possible to eclipse those numbers?
"I haven't even thought about that," Dixon said. "I see us having some games where he has 20 points, some games with him not having 20. If you told me he's healthy and out of foul trouble, factors that dictate one's scoring average then I can give you the answer."
Dixon emptied the bench in the opening exhibition game against LaRoche. He used every player except for walk-on Aron Nwonkwo in Monday's win over Kentucky Wesleyan. One battle to keep an eye on will be the battle for the three position between J.J. Moore and Lamar Patterson. Patterson came off the bench to lead Pitt with 22 points on Monday night. Things take a little bit of a turn with Moore being suspended for tonight's game, but that battle could continue on through the non-conference schedule.
While Robinson should be good to go, Zanna will push for minutes at the three, four and five positions. Depending on how much Zanna and the starters play, as well as if Patterson moves in to play the four at certain points, getting freshmen Khem Birch and Malcolm Gilbert will be under close watch as well. Birch was third on the team with 11 points a game in the exhibition season. Gilbert averaged 13 minutes a game in the two exhibitions with a team-high six blocked shots. Cameron Wright also averaged 16 minutes a game in the two exhibition games. He could fill in at either of the guard spots, if needed, or at the three if there's room.
"There's still things to be seen and things to be decided," Dixon said. "Whoever we have out there, there's going to be some young freshmen. It's really going to be interesting to see how they progress."