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Assists are basis of Pitt basketball team's success

| Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, 7:51 p.m.
Pittsburgh guard Cameron Wright and Cincinnati forward Titus Rubles go for the ball during the first half of an NCAA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, in Cincinnati. AP
Pittsburgh forward Dante Taylor (11) goes up to dunk the ball against Cincinnati forward Titus Rubles (2) during the second half of an NCAA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh won, 62-52. AP Photo

CINCINNATI — One time it was Pitt power forward Talib Zanna zipping it to a cutting Lamar Patterson from the right corner; the next, center Steven Adams was slipping a bounce pass to Zanna from the high post.

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin called it inexcusable that Pitt players dunked on the Bearcats' zone defense.

Jamie Dixon finds it inconceivable that the Panthers' passing isn't discussed more, given their propensity for finding open players and for those passes leading to points.

“We're not tops in the country in assists for nothing,” Dixon said. “We do it year after year. It's something that doesn't get talked about enough, except for (Pitt radio color analyst) Dick Groat. He's the only guy that seems to talk about our passing.”

The Panthers rank among the nation's leaders in both assists (sixth, 17.2 a game) and assists-to-turnover ratio (second, 1.57). They have averaged at least 15 assists a game every season since Dixon became coach in 2003-04, ranking as high as fourth (17.4) in 2010-11 and sixth (18.0) in 2008-09.

Pitt had 13 assists on its 20 field goals in the 62-52 victory at Cincinnati on Saturday night, and some of the key passes came at the most critical moments.

Afterward, Dixon discussed the importance of spacing, setting screens and making the right reads to get the ball to an open man. The pass, he said, is what makes the play. And making the extra pass was pivotal to Pitt's shot selection, especially on a night when it shot a higher percentage from 3-point range (4 of 8) than from inside the arc (16 of 36).

“We take what's available. That's what we do,” Dixon said. “That's why our offensive efficiency is so high year after year. It's among the tops in the country this year.

“You can't rely on one thing, one play, one set, one player. It's recognizing that the passing speaks for itself, the numbers, the assists. The 13 assists and seven turnovers, that's what's impressive to me against a team that's pressing the entire time.”

It's no coincidence that Pitt used an inside-out philosophy on offense, and its frontcourt of Adams and Zanna combined to make 9 of 12 shots from the field. They also threw two of the best passes in the final five minutes of the game, both leading to the aforementioned dunks.

“We gave them layups on the backside,” Cincinnati guard Sean Kilpatrick said. “That was not part of the game plan.”

The Panthers have won seven of their past eight games, and they believe that they can continue to improve if Adams and Zanna shoot 75 percent from the field and combine for 24 points, as they did against Cincinnati. Thanks in part to its passing, Pitt outscored the Bearcats, 30-20, in the paint.

“We will be a team to watch,” Patterson said. “With Steve and Talib down low, dominating like that and getting easy layups makes it easier for us guards on the perimeter. We got it to them, they were doubled and that left people open to make a cut move.

“And since they can both pass, we were able to take advantage of the two forces down low.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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