There's a lot of familiarity with Long Beach State from Jamie Dixon's point-of-view. 49ers head coach Dan Monson—who has also had successful stops at Gonzaga and Minnesota prior to Long Beach—is a close friend. Dixon said the two talked in the past about getting this game set up.
"Coach Monson and I got together, I think we were on the Nike trip, and we talked about it," Dixon said. "I think we had talked about it in previous years. Their staff, I'm pretty good friends with."
Then, there is of course the RPI draw—something Dixon always goes for an early non-conference matchup. He expects the 49ers to win their conference, and compete for an NCAA Tournament berth. A big reason in that is in their lineup—from the 1 to the 4 position—consists of good shooters. Three players have at least three three-point attempts in an opening win over Idaho.
"A lot of guys returning, a lot of double-figures scoring, four of them," Dixon said. "A very good team, and a team a lot of other teams didn't want to play in the preseason."
In fact, in addition to being familiar with Monson, Dixon is also a fan of Long Beach State point guard Casper Ware. Ware's father, in Dixon's eyes, was a legendary player from Los Angeles, where Dixon grew up. Though he never played against the elder Ware, the name brings up good memories for the Pitt head coach.
"He was older than me, and I grew up watching him," Dixon said. "I used to go to this tournament and see him. He was a really good player. His kid is very similar, too."
The younger Ware is one of 50 players named to the John Wooden Watch List. Over the summer, Ware was named MVP of the Drew League, which is a prestigious Los Angeles pro-am league, much larger in scale to the Pittsburgh Pro-Am League held here, but similar. In fact, the elder Ware was named MVP of the league, which is where Dixon grew up watching him.
Then, there's Dixon's current team—who had to rally to fight off a feisty Rider team on Sunday night, in a 86-78 win over the Broncs. Though Dixon can be pleased with the play of his more experienced players—Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall averaging over 20 points through two games, as well as Nasir Robinson who's averaging in double-figures—he's seeing some transition problems with getting a group of younger players involved early. It's a sign of Pitt showing its youth, particularly on the defensive end.
"We're never very good, defensively, in November," Dixon said. "It's just about getting better. In some ways we did some things better, and in other ways we didn't, so we've got to get that addressed."
It's not necessarily a recurring problem that he's going to have to battle with this season, but more of a reality situation of how young this team is. Gibbs, Woodall and Robinson are in their fourth year, and Woodall took a redshirt. Dante Taylor is in his third year. The next experienced player after that is Lamar Patterson. Patterson's play has been pretty key through the exhibition games and first two regular season games. The redshirt sophomore is leading the team with 7.5 rebounds a game, and shooting at a 42.9% clip (5-of-9) from three-point range.
All five starters are averaging over 20 minutes a game, and they've responded. Then again, it is only two games into the season, and Gibbs is averaging over 30 minutes a game. How will he hold up, averaging 33 minutes a game when Big East play rolls around. That's why there are 13 non-conference games—to see who else can learn, and contribute to the rotation.
Past that starting five includes a regular rotation of a redshirt sophomore (Talib Zanna), a true sophomore (J.J. Moore), a redshirt freshman (Cameron Wright) followed by two true freshmen (John Johnson, Khem Birch). Those are all the players who have played in both games so far. There have been some good things so far. Johnson is a pleasant surprise, in the sense that he has given the team a spark from three-point range. In another sense, he's surpassed redshirt freshman Isaiah Epps—who has an additional year in the system, ahead of Johnson.
Dixon knew he would have this, with a younger lineup. He feels a game like Sunday's game with Rider—a close one that Pitt had to fight to hold on—is something good for his time, this early in the season.
"Every opportunity is a chance to get better, a chance to learn, no matter what the age, freshman up to senior," Dixon said. "We will get better because of it, and we will handle some things better in the future.
"Those were a lot of things we hadn't seen, a lot of things our guys hadn't seen before; new guys. Some guys, for seniors and juniors, it was a refresher course. That's hopefully something they can build on as well."
When it comes to communication, that is going to take some time—and something that's probably the biggest obstacle for this team right now. Dante Taylor says it's just getting the younger players—who haven't been on the floor for multiple years like the veteran crew has—to be accustomed to their one-the-floor verbage.
"It's just a lot of terminology they don't know, a lot of areas on the court they don't know," Taylor said. "So, when we say it, they might not know what we're talking about, so we'll have to stop practice and go over it."
There may have been panic at Sunday night's games. If this non-conference season proves anything for Pitt, it will certainly prove that no game is going to be a given and that it should keep players motivated on winning one game at a time.
"We can't use that as an excuse," Dixon said. "We've always had younger guys—maybe a little more this year. Our older guys are veteran guys. They have to be above that. Everybody's got to be getting better each day; each freshman, each junior, each senior and sophomore. Everybody has young guys. We need to use that to our benefit."