Panthers looking to keep pace in ACC

PITTSBURGH (AP) Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon ordered his players to run, run and then run some more during the offseason, determined to make sure the Panthers could keep pace in the new-look ACC.

Through the drudgery, Dixon kept reminding the Panthers about the transformation of former forward Lamar Patterson, who evolved from role player into vital cog during his senior season last winter thanks in part to a more athletic frame.

”Guys saw results of Lamar having a great year,” Dixon said. ”He was in the running for ACC Player of the Year. Gradually we got down to the weight we had as a goal for him his freshman year when he arrived here. They saw success he had as a lighter, quicker player.”

Pitt is hoping for a similar trajectory for sophomore forward Michael Young, one of three returning starters for a 26-10 team that lost in the third round of the NCAA tournament last spring. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound Young – described as ”He Man” by teammate Sheldon Jeter – is decidedly more sculpted than he was as a raw, unfinished product a year ago.

Young will move into the center spot vacated by the departure of Talib Zanna and brings a polished offensive game the Panthers have lacked in the post in recent years. The early returns have been promising. Young averaged 22.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in a pair of exhibition wins, mixing crisp post play with a deft outside touch.

”We’ve never really had a guy that skilled that can play (center),” Dixon said.

Young’s development is crucial to taking some of the pressure off Pitt’s perimeter, particularly early in the season while senior guard Cam Wright recovers from a fractured left foot.

The Panthers will find themselves well-tested before their second season in the ACC begins. Pitt will spend Thanksgiving in Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, a field that includes No. 2 Arizona and No. 16 San Diego State plus BYU, Missouri and Kansas State.

Going west without their leading returning scorer isn’t ideal, but Dixon believes it’s a chance for serious growth for a rotation that will likely include only four upperclassmen.

”These guys are determined to do something special,” Dixon said. ”On paper we look like a young team … but I felt the summer and having a lot time together we really did some positive things.”

What else to look for as Pitt tries to get past the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009:

JOHNSON’S JUMP: Junior swingman Durand Johnson was in the process of making the leap from spark off the bench to budding star when he tore the ACL in his right knee in January. Ten months later, the excitable Johnson is back to provide the Panthers with an emotional boost. An ankle injury in September slowed him at the start of practice but he appeared to be his shot-happy self while scoring 19 points in an exhibition win over Philadelphia.

MR. ROBINSON’S NEIGHBORHOOD: Junior point guard James Robinson will need to take on a more prominent role in the offense. Robinson makes good decisions with the ball – look no further than his 3.4 assist/turnover ratio – but Dixon would like it if Robinson called his own number more often.

CAM CAN: Wright was a revelation at times last season. His scoring average jumped from 4.3 points per game as a sophomore to 10.5 as a junior. He’s the team’s best slasher, and his ability to get to the line will be crucial once he returns.

”D” UP: For most of Dixon’s 11-year tenure, the Panthers have relied on a rugged defense. That identity is changing as he recruits faster, more offensively skilled players. Still, the quickest way to earn playing time is developing toughness on the other end of the court. Dixon chastised his players for being too passive during the exhibition season and challenged them to pick up the intensity.

ROUGH ROAD: Pitt’s second year in the ACC will have a decidedly familiar feel. The Panthers will play both Syracuse and Louisville – old rivals from the Big East – twice this season. Throw in the trip to Hawaii and conference games at Duke and defending conference champion Virginia and Pitt will have to fight to earn a trip to the NCAAs for the 11th time in Dixon’s 12 years on the job.