Pitt travels to Tennessee on Saturday afternoon to participate in the HTC Big East/SEC Challenge for a second year in a row. The Panthers enter this game riding a four-game winning streak after a 86-76 loss to Long Beach State.
It's going to be a tough road game for Pitt, but the game may get even tougher once it tips off. Pitt practiced without guard Travon Woodall, who was recovering from a host of injuries sustained in Wednesday night's win over Duquesne—mostly a leg injury. Head coach Jamie Dixon couldn't clarify much more than that, other than to just say he's not sure if and when Woodall's status can be determined.
"He's in a lot of pain, there's no question about that," Dixon said. "It's the leg, that's where the pain was. I think it's the abdomen area (also), that's where the pain seems to be where it was, but that area is connected to everything."
In addition to Woodall, leading scorer Ashton Gibbs (19.1 ppg) was limited in practice. If Woodall isn't able to go, it opens up a number of options that Dixon could go with—including sliding someone like Lamar Patterson up to guard, starting Gibbs at the point and moving J.J. Moore into the starting lineup. It could also mark the first career start for freshman John Johnson, who has played in all seven games this season. Johnson leads the Big East in three-point shooting (8-of-12, .667).
"We've got John, and we've got Cameron; Cameron will be ready to go," Dixon added. "We've got Isaiah (Epps), and we've got Lamar and J.J. We've got other guys, but we'll see when (Saturday's tip-off) comes. These guys have all played at different spots."
One other issue Dixon has had to contend with has been the number of suspensions that we've seen this season. Already, seven games in, J.J. Moore faced a mandatory one-game suspension for playing in an unauthorized summer league game. Moore sat out the opener against Albany. Then, it was Lamar Patterson who was dealt a two-game suspension. He sat out games at Penn and against Robert Morris, before returning to the starting lineup Wednesday night against Duquesne. Then, just prior to tip-off on Wednesday night, Dixon suspended Cameron Wright. Wright was coming off a career-high 13 points against Robert Morris.
"It's done, it's over with, and I doubt in many places they would have been suspended," Dixon said.
With an apparent obstacle—the loss of Woodall, and whether it happens or not happens for this game and beyond—a series of obstacles in the form of suspensions, this Pitt team has experienced a little adversity through the early part of its non-conference schedule. On the court, they experienced an obstacle in its overall defensive play and rebounding—something uncharacteristic of a Dixon-coached team.
Dante Taylor missed the two games prior to Wednesday night's win over Duquesne, sitting out due to some severe headaches. Khem Birch moved into the starting lineup, and remained in the lineup when Taylor returned to the lineup. Birch had an impressive outing in a 73-69 win over LaSalle, where he came off the bench with 4 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks in 13 minutes. In his first start against Penn on Friday, Birch registered his first career double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. He grabbed 11 rebounds in the win over Robert Morris. He finished with five rebounds in 13 minutes against Duquesne, a performance that was offset by the return of Taylor. Taylor had a double-double—15 points and 11 rebounds—in 27 minutes of work.
"He's played well all year long," Dixon said of Taylor. "If you look at his numbers, they've been pretty good. He's played very well. I like our rotations with those four guys inside. I think we have gotten good production. (Taylor) understands what we're doing.
"Talib played very well, but had some foul trouble. Dante was very productive. I think we have a good rotation; some good versatility, some understanding that is continuing to evolve with our younger guys."
Dixon has not publicly stated whether or not Taylor would return to the lineup Saturday or not, but the pattern of minutes should be interesting to follow from here. It's something Dixon has done before. Lamar Patterson was brought up through the system that way, to where he is a regular starter now. He said if given the choice, he'd take the more minutes off the bench as opposed to starting with less minutes. He also said that he and his teammates understand how it works.
"We all know, our minutes are based on how we're playing in that game," Patterson said. "If we're having a bad game, then don't expect to have any minutes."
Aside from the progression of Birch, Talib Zanna has also bounced back since that loss to Long Beach State. In that loss, Zanna finished with no points and 6 rebounds of 20 minutes of action that night. In the four games since, he's averaged 6.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in an average of 16.5 minutes per game—a much more efficient performance.
"They're getting more involved," teammate Patterson said. "It's been a point of emphasis that we want to get them more involved. It felt like we were leaving them out, and not getting them involved in the game. No one really wants to play there unless they're involved. I feel like they're getting more involved now. They're real hungry now.
"We run plays for them; screens and just looking for them a lot more. We're looking to get it in the post more often; just stuff that we should have been looking for more often."