Panthers looking to toughen up for brutal stretch

PITTSBURGH (AP) Michael Young isn’t a numbers cruncher. The Pittsburgh sophomore center admits he didn’t even understand what the Ratings Percentage Index was until given a crash-course in the formula recently.

What Young does understand, however, is simple addition. The more victories, the less math required by the NCAA tournament selection committee when it considers Pitt in March. Young also gets that the middling Panthers (13-6, 3-3 ACC) some quality to go with that quantity would help.

There are plenty of opportunities for that over the next month starting Sunday against No. 10 Louisville (15-3, 3-2). The visit by the Cardinals is part of a stretch that includes two games each against Louisville and Syracuse as well as showdowns with No. 15 North Carolina and No. 2 Virginia.

”I just know we win all our home games from this point on, that’ll be a Louisville win, a North Carolina win and that’ll be a Syracuse win, that’ll be good wins for us,” Young said.

At this point, getting one would be enough for coach Jamie Dixon. The Panthers are still searching for an identity more than two months into the season. While he makes it a point not to blame youth on a team that features six freshmen or sophomores in its rotation, he allows there are some growing pains that are inevitable.

One of the most visible came in an ugly 71-62 loss to Clemson two weeks ago. The Tigers outrebounded Pitt 39-22 and pushed the Panthers around in a way that’s rarely happened in the 16 years Dixon has been on the bench either as an assistant or a head coach. Dixon responded by trying up the intensity in practice, burying the whistle in his pocket during drills and scrimmages.

”I think there’s an emphasis on our physicality,” Dixon said. ”Once you get in league play it’s more physical. We’ve seen that more clearly. You can tell guys over and over again but it doesn’t matter until you go through it.”

While the rebounding has improved somewhat in the interim, the Panthers hardly resemble the churlish and intimidating group that has long been the hallmark under Dixon. A decided lack of size hasn’t helped. The 6-foot-9 Young sometimes finds himself playing out of position at center because of the inconsistent production of big men Joseph Uchebo and Derrick Randall.

On Sunday he’ll find a kindred spirit of sorts in Louisville junior Montrezl Harrell, who is averaging 14.9 points and 9.2 rebounds despite being a relatively undersized 6-8. Young considers himself the more skilled of the two, but understands Harrell makes up for in sheer tenacity whatever he may lack in the finer points of the game.

”He’s just a guy that’s going to go hard every possession,” Young said. ”He’s going to rebound.”

And at times, the Panthers do not. Pitt is 10th in the ACC in rebound margin (plus 4.4 a game), though they’re a ghastly minus 3.8 in league play. Too many bricks have not helped. Young broke one of Dixon’s main tenets when he said a more efficient offense would lead to an uptick in nastiness at the other.

”If we start games better and make more shots that’ll pick it up even more.”

Dixon understands the frustration. He’d just prefer his team develop the toughness necessary to go hard no matter if the ball is going through the hoop or not.

”It’s hard to win every game but I think we’ve learned a lot and we’ve improved,” Dixon said. ”There’s not much difference (in the conference). The separation isn’t about shots … it’s about a lot of other things. It has to be about constants and rebounding has to be one of those constants.”

And it better become one quickly or Pitt will be in danger of missing the NCAAs for just the second time in Dixon’s dozen seasons.

”We’ve got to take care of business,” Dixon said. ”We’ve got to beat a good team.”

The Panthers won’t lack for opportunities.