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In Pitt-Louisville, battle of graduate transfers

| Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Rafael Maia grabs a rebound against Georgia Tech in the second half Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, at Petersen Events Center.

No. 20 Pitt visits No. 21 Louisville on Thursday night in an ACC showdown that is a strong endorsement for the NCAA's graduate transfer rule.

Pitt signed three graduate transfers and starts two: guard Sterling Smith and center Rafael Maia. Their veteran leadership has helped lift the Panthers (14-1, 3-0) into the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in two years.

Louisville (13-3, 2-1) signed a pair of graduate transfers, Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, who not only start but also have emerged as the Cardinals' leading scorers.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, noting how the rule has impacted both teams, adopted a phrase for the 9:05 p.m. matchup at KFC Yum! Center.

“The grad transfer championship,” Dixon said. “That's the story.”

The story highlights how the rule can enhance the right teams under the right circumstances.

Pitt needed a veteran guard to replace Cameron Wright and found one in Smith, who has started every game and averages 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds and shoots 49.1 percent from 3-point range. Maia and another graduate transfer, Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, fill a void at center that was a weak spot in the Panthers defense last season.

Lee and Lewis have more than adequately replaced Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell, who were Louisville's leading scorers last season. However, when Lee and Lewis don't play well, the Cardinals struggle.

Such was the case Sunday.

Lee and Lewis combined for 16 points on 5-of-31 shooting and were 1 of 18 from 3-point range in a 66-62 loss at Clemson. Louisville coach Rick Pitino singled out both after the loss.

“Damion and Trey both realized their mistakes,” Pitino said. “They were apologetic about the way they played. They got caught up in it, and they learned a valuable lesson. I've got great confidence in both young men. They had a bad night — we all did. I know they'll respond in a big way.”

Dixon is familiar with both, especially Lee, whom he attempted to sign after Lee graduated from Drexel.

“It's a small world,” Dixon said. “I was watching clips of Damion Lee when we were trying to recruit him.

“There's a lot of returning (Louisville) players, but the guys that are scoring are the new guys. We're dealing with the same thing. You need guys for different reasons, different spots, different roles. You find each role covered between our two teams.

“Theirs have done well. Ours have done well.”

Pitt junior Michael Young said the graduate transfers give Louisville a different look.

“They're a better shooting team,” Young said.

Graduate transfers are changing the college game, according to Dixon, who said he plans to continue recruiting them.

“This is where we are headed with recruiting and where the game is going,” he said. “You're going to see that across the board. It's game changing, and it's only going to get bigger.”

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

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