Pitt basketball turns to familiar recipe for recent surge

John Harris
| Tuesday, March 1, 2016, 9:15 p.m.

This season's Pitt basketball team finally has an identity.

It has come down to this for the Panthers (20-8, 9-7), who visit Virginia Tech (16-13, 8-8) at 7 p.m. Wednesday in their next-to-last ACC regular-season game.

When the Panthers rebound well — it's now a common occurrence — they add a dominant element to their game that didn't exist earlier this season.

Since being outrebounded 41-29 in a loss at No. 8 North Carolina on Feb. 14, the Panthers outrebounded their next four opponents 174-106, posting a 3-1 record during that stretch.

That includes a 65-26 advantage on the offensive glass and a two-to-one edge in second-chance points (58-29).

Pitt has recorded double-digit offensive rebounds in three of the four games, including a high of 26 against Wake Forest. No Pitt opponent recorded double-digit offensive rebounds during that span.

Even in the North Carolina loss, the Panthers held a 19-1 advantage in offensive rebounds and led 11-2 in second-chance points.

”Second shots, they can't get those,” coach Jamie Dixon said regarding a strategy that has resulted in Pitt leading the ACC in rebounding margin.

The Panthers are the only team in the conference averaging eight rebounds per game more than opponents.

An improved rebounding presence extended to the defensive end. The Panthers, not known for their rugged play this season, were physical in a 76-62 victory over No. 17 Duke on Saturday.

The Panthers muscled star guard Grayson Allen, delivering elbows and nudges as he maneuvered for shots, and held the Blue Devils — second in the ACC in scoring — to 37.5 percent shooting.

What has gotten into this team?

“If I had known that, I would have slept easier in November,” Dixon said.

What Dixon does know is the Panthers — featuring three graduate transfers in their first season with the program — took longer than expected to develop.

The prolonged learning curve delayed the progress of what Dixon believes should be a consistent top-25 team.

“Our best teams have had three seniors that have been through it and played and gradually came to a point,” Dixon said. “We haven't had that the last couple years.

“It takes a mentality that they don't come with in high school. It's building. It's getting there. It's taken them all longer than normal.

“That's why we're not a ranked team like we were in all the years prior.”

In the first meeting against Virginia Tech, the Panthers dominated 90-71. Pitt barely won the rebounding battle, 34-32 (14-11 on the offensive glass).

However, the Panthers shot 52.9 percent, recorded a season-high 30 assists and scored 40 points in the paint — their highest total against an ACC opponent this season.

Defensively, the Panthers forced a season-high 20 turnovers responsible for 33 points.

“They dominated us from start to finish,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said. “I don't think it was ever a game. I don't think we were ever in the mix for it to be a game. They played harder. They played tougher. They played smarter.”

After defeating Duke for their first win over a top-25 opponent this season, the Panthers must build on that momentum, Dixon said.

“We needed to get one (top-25 win) because it became an easy thing to hold against us,” Dixon said. “The more you win, you've got to win more.”

John Harris is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com or via Twitter @jharris_trib.

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