Kovacevic: Tray holds Pitt's tournament touch

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

This was going to be, if not the big season for Pitt, then at least a big season.

That was clear more than a year ago, when one of Jamie Dixon's finest recruiting classes included Steven Adams and James Robinson, who looked destined to start right away. And it was bolstered by Lamar Patterson dominating the summer leagues, the overnight maturity of Talib Zanna, the transfer of Trey Zeigler and even the beleaguered Dante Taylor finding a fresh fire.

Ten deep.

This roster had enough potential at enough positions that Dixon could go with a regular rotation of five at a time.

And yet, here we are on the eve of another Big East Tournament in New York — tipoff for the Panthers is Thursday — and the guy who will take the ball up the Garden court is the most familiar face of all.

Same goes for the guy who will call the plays, check the floor, calm his mates.

And for the guy with the softest shooting touch, the best bet to set up at the buzzer.

“I put it on myself, all of it,” Tray Woodall was saying, unflinchingly, before boarding the team bus the other day outside Petersen Events Center. “That's just how I feel.”

Anyone care to argue?

Dixon won't and not just because he loves the kid like a son.

The cold fact is these Panthers haven't hit their crescendo as a group. Haven't come close, really. Not the way you'd hope with so many freshmen and sophomores, who tend to show more spiked improvement in short spans.

Don't get me wrong. Pitt's record of 24-7, 12-6 in the Big East, is legit. And the Panthers have gotten better. But they still wound up 124th in the NCAA in scoring (69.2 points per game), 298th in 3-pointers per game (4.9) and 250th in free-throw percentage (66.7). It's not a great shooting team, to be kind. It's also not a great defensive team, at least not per the Pitt standard.

Is that peaking?

“Well, I guess our record's as good as anybody's down the stretch,” Dixon said of the Panthers' 11-3 roll following a 1-3 start to conference play. “And yeah, I like what we're doing. I like that our young guys are playing better, that they've improved. I like that our defense is far better than it was at the start. We've had some guys shoot the ball well lately, too.”

OK, that's all fair, but let's be real: We've got no idea how these Panthers will fare in their Big East farewell. I mean zero. They could get rubbed out right away, or they could stick it to No. 1 seed Georgetown on the way to winning it all.

No, really. It might go that well. Let's not forget that, on Jan. 8 down in D.C., Pitt utterly annihilated the Hoyas, 73-45, for the worst conference defeat in that school's history.

It could happen again.

But if it does, be sure one player — not all 10 — will be front and center.

Woodall's the one who brought down Georgetown with 11 points, seven assists and this stirring statement afterward: “I'm a senior on the team, me and Dante. There's more pressure on me. I want it. I embrace it.”

Woodall's the one who led the Panthers by averaging 11.7 points and 5.3 assists, asserting himself more with each game.

Woodall's the one who will feel most at home, the Brooklyn kid whose passion for playing in the Garden was evident again Feb. 24 with a 25-point gem against St. John's.

Woodall's the one, above all, who can handle it.

When you think of the Panthers' Garden successes of the past, he's precisely that player, that prototype Pitt guard. Nails tough. Unselfish. Unfazed. Brandin Knight. Levance Fields. Carl Krauser.

He still takes from all three, too, and not just Knight, the assistant coach. Fields and Krauser text and tweet him all the time.

“It's an honor to be mentioned with those names, the guys who paved the way for point guards at Pitt,” Woodall said.

He takes from his background, too, famously rough as it was from a broken, impoverished family. As he puts it, “The way I grew up, I never thought I'd come to college.”

Even in that environment, he's usually been the strong one.

The night before that game two weeks ago at the Garden, Woodall drove over to New Jersey to visit his grandmother who had fallen ill. She hadn't moved in several days, and no one was entirely sure what was wrong or if the worst was about to come.

Once Woodall showed up, as he recalls, he locked his hand into hers.

And she moved for the first time.

Now she's in a nursing home being treated for low blood sugar, leading the family to believe she'd been in a diabetic coma.

Now, according to Woodall, “She's doing OK.”

The grandson will do OK, too. He's got that touch.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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