Pitt notebook: Panthers ready for thin air of Salt Lake City
By Jerry DiPaola
Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013, 8:09 p.m.
Salt Lake City isn't the highest point in Utah, but at 4,327 feet, it rises nearly three-quarters of a mile higher than most points in Pittsburgh.
Naturally, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon was asked if the altitude could affect his team Thursday when the Panthers meet Wichita State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament West Region.
Dixon has some experience with basketball played at high altitudes, coaching in the WAC as an assistant at Hawaii and in the Big Sky Conference at Northern Arizona.
“I don't think it's going to be much of a factor,” he said. “It's something that gets talked about, but I've seen it on both ends.”
Dixon remembers a big sign posted in front of the visitor's locker room at Northern Arizona that was intended to discourage opponents from expending too much energy.
“It said, ‘Caution, you are at a high altitude. If there is any shortage of breath, stop all exercise,' '' Dixon said, smiling at his former school's attempt to gain an edge.
“I found that when we weren't very good, it didn't matter what altitude you were at. But when we got good, the altitude looked pretty good to us.”
When Pitt played in Denver in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, some of the Panthers admitted they felt a little short of breath at the start of an eventual first-round victory over Oral Roberts.
“We came to a timeout, and Ronald (Ramon) said, ‘Do you feel that? I can't even breathe,' '' former Panther Sam Young said after the 82-63 win at mile-high Pepsi Center in '08. “We asked for a cup of water. Levance (Fields) said he was feeling it. Then, we looked up at the score, and it was a close game.
“We got into the huddle, and Levance said, ‘Push through it.' Everybody said, ‘Push through it.' It was over from there.”
Pitt redshirt sophomore guard Cam Wright, who lives in Cleveland, played at a high altitude when he tried out for the USA Basketball under-19 team in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“I'm guessing it will be similar,” he said. “You adjust. You just adapt to your surroundings.”
Or, as Pitt women's coach Agnus Berenato once told her team before a game in Albuquerque: “It's not the altitude; it's the attitude.”
Senior Dante Taylor said Tuesday he wanted to return to the Syracuse game in the Big East Tournament last week when he received a cut near his right eye that required six stitches to close. But Pitt doctors wouldn't allow it, deferring to university policy anytime an athlete receives a head injury.
“They were being cautious, making sure I didn't have a concussion,” he said. “I can see where (Dixon) is coming from, but I still wanted to play.”
Taylor said he sustained a hit on the eye during a brief practice Tuesday at Petersen Events Center — his first action since the injury — but it caused no further damage.
“This eye is not going to stop me from playing,” he said.
“It didn't seem to be bothering him,” Dixon said. “There is still swelling there, but I didn't see that it is affecting his vision.”
Pitt walked through many of Wichita State's sets and plays Tuesday, and Dixon said his opponent reminds him of some Big East teams because of their size and physicality.
Next stop: Utah
After practice, the team took a non-stop, chartered flight to Salt Lake City, with a traveling party of about 120 people, including band members, cheerleaders and administrators.
Pitt's 7-foot center Steven Adams grew up in New Zealand where rugby is as popular as basketball is in the United States.
But he found out at young age that the game wasn't for him.
“I played five years,” he said. “I was real skinny. Rugby players are short, stocky, built like refrigerators. I just got destroyed. That was a sign I had to give that up. Good decision.”
Seniors Tray Woodall and Taylor are ranked among Pitt's all-time leaders in games played and could move even higher if the Panthers win a few games in the tournament.
Woodall, who missed 11 games last season with a groin/abdominal strain, has played in 138, third to Young (143) and Tyrell Biggs (141), both of whom were Panthers from 2005-2009.
Taylor (135) is tied for seventh with Ramon (2004-2008) and could tie Ashton Gibbs (2008-2012) and Jaron Brown (2000-2004) for fourth if Pitt beats Wichita State and advances into the third round.
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
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