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Pitt men's basketball team looks for identity

| Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, 11:06 p.m.
Pitt's Trey Zeigler has his first half shot blocked by Marquette's Todd Mayo at Petersen Events Center Jan. 12, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

On a night when he rediscovered his scoring touch and sparked Pitt to victory at Villanova, the first words out of Trey Zeigler's mouth were not about the offensive outburst but his determination on defense.

“It was all about getting stops first,” Zeigler said. “We just had to keep getting stops and rebound, and I think we did a good job of that.”

Those words had to be music to Jamie Dixon's ears, as the Pitt coach continues to preach those principles to his Panthers (14-4, 2-3 Big East), who play host to Connecticut (12-4, 2-2) at noon Saturday at Petersen Events Center.

That is the paradox of the Pitt basketball program: to crack the lineup, you have to play defense; to stay on the floor, you have to defend and score.

It has taken 18 games for his words to sink in to two of the four newcomers to the Panthers' 10-man rotation: Zeigler, a 6-foot-6 junior who transferred from Central Michigan, and Durand Johnson, a 6-5 redshirt freshman swingman.

Zeigler and Johnson accounted for nearly half of Pitt's points in the 58-43 victory at Villanova, scoring 13 points apiece off the bench. Zeigler played 25 minutes and Johnson 23, and their playing time figures to increase with every game in which they prove they are more than just scorers.

“They're playing better and better, and they're understanding what we're trying to do,” Dixon said. “I've continually stressed rebounding and defense is the secret to playing time.

“It maybe takes some guys a little while to figure out. Again, it's a whole other level from where you played high school or somewhere else, defensively. It's not even comparable. It takes some time. You can preach it, but they've got to go through growing pains.”

It has been the opposite for Pitt's two other newcomers, 7-foot freshman center Steven Adams and 6-3 freshman point guard James Robinson. They earned starting spots during the nonconference schedule, but are going through their own growing pains in providing an offensive punch against Big East competition.

Where Adams is raw offensively, scoring many of his points on dunks, he leads the team in rebounds (5.0 rpg) and blocked shots (2.0 bpg) in conference games.

Robinson has struggled defending quicker guards and finding his shooting stroke, but coaches have confidence in his sound decision-making and ball-handling against the press, based on his 2.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in Big East play.

“You talk about the four new guys: James, Steve, Durand and Zig, those are four guys playing significant minutes,” Dixon said. “We're hoping that they continue to improve and get better, so this was big step in that direction for both of those guys.”

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