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Pitt freshmen adjusting to NCAA Tournament hype

| Monday, March 18, 2013, 12:44 a.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Steven Adams pulls down a rebound next to Connecticut's Tyler Olander during the first half Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, at Petersen Events Center.
Pitt's Steven Adams blocks the shot of South Florida's Toarlyn Fitzpatrick shot during the second half of a game Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, at Petersen Events Center.

Steven Adams knew there was a party at the Campus View Club inside Petersen Events Center for the Pitt players to learn their NCAA Tournament destination.

He just didn't know about the other invited guests.

When he arrived Sunday night, the 7-foot freshman center from Rotorua, New Zealand, was slightly shocked but properly introduced to the tournament's importance in the U.S.

A roomful of fans, school officials and an impressive buffet were there to greet him.

“Teammates said we had a feed upstairs,” he said. “I was like, ‘Sweet! Food.' I didn't know what to expect. They said it was a big deal. I didn't really care.”

Adams cares only about the basketball. The hype surrounding it is for others to celebrate.

He's too busy with more relevant pursuits, including 31 starts, a team-high 6.2 rebounds per game (seventh-best all-time for a Pitt freshman) and 62 blocked shots (third-best).

In the days leading up to Pitt's second-round NCAA West Region game Thursday against Wichita State in Salt Lake City, Adams remains calm.

“People (in New Zealand) probably do (follow the NCAA Tournament),” he said. “I never did. It just never interested me at all. I never got into this.”

Then, there's freshman guard James Robinson, who has been preparing most of his life for his NCAA moment.

“This is pretty much everything I've looked at since I've been a kid,” said Robinson, who played at legendary DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School. “It will be a lot of fun. It will be a good experience.”

Robinson, 19, is second on the team with 113 assists and third in minutes (26.5), exposing him to the stifling pressure that can lead to mistakes in big games.

And so it was that Robinson's bad pass cost Pitt a possible game-tying shot against Syracuse last week in the Big East Tournament.

With Pitt trailing by three and 16 seconds left in the quarterfinal game at Madison Square Garden, Robinson tried to get the ball to Tray Woodall, but the pass didn't have enough velocity and was intercepted by Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams.

Lesson learned.

“(Syracuse defenders) did a good job of speeding me up,” said Robinson, who's averaging 1.2 turnovers per game while handling the ball much of the time. “I made a bad decision, but I learned from it. (Tray) talked to me about it, but he pretty much said: ‘Get over it. It's just one play. We have more basketball to win.' ”

Woodall prefers to concentrate on the freshmen's unselfishness.

“You have guys as freshmen (on other teams) who want to come in and score,” he said. “These young guys understand, and they know what we've got to do to get it done.”

Perhaps that's why Adams and Robinson are second in starts by a Pitt freshman (31) to DeJuan Blair (36 in 2007-08).

The pair are two of the six Pitt players who never have played in an NCAA Tournament game but have played important minutes this season. The others are redshirt freshman forward Durand Johnson, redshirt sophomore Cam Wright, redshirt junior forward Talib Zanna and junior guard Trey Zeigler, a transfer who played the previous two seasons at Central Michigan.

Wright and Zanna (injury) were members of Pitt's 2011 team that lost to Butler in a third-round game, but they didn't play in the tournament. Plus, junior J.J. Moore's tournament experience is limited to one minute against UNC Asheville in '11.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said the presence of two freshmen in the starting lineup doesn't concern him.

“Not too many teams are starting two freshmen, so we needed them to be sophomores early on in the year,” he said. “We've been through a long year, a lot of games. We've seen everything we need to see. Our guys understand it. There's no excuse for inexperience at this point.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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