Men’s Basketball: Panthers display depth against La Roche

By Lauren Kirschman

The Pitt men’s basketball team’s 101-33 win over La Roche on Saturday was hardly unexpected…. The Pitt men’s basketball team’s 101-33 win over La Roche on Saturday was hardly unexpected. And it’s true that it’s hard to tell much from an exhibition victory over a Division III opponent.

Still, the Panthers’ win highlighted one important quality of this year’s team: depth.

Pitt entered this season with some new names on its roster. Pitt fans knew what to expect from senior starters Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson, but with six freshmen — four true freshmen — on the team, the Panthers had a number of unknowns in the equation.

But in typical Pitt basketball fashion, it looks like plenty of players were waiting in the wings to help replace the productivity of Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee.

The Panthers illustrated their depth with balanced scoring against La Roche as 13 different players, including walk-on guard Nick Rivers, put points on the board. The only Pitt player that didn’t score was walk-on Aron Nwankwo, who played one minute.

J.J. Moore and Lamar Patterson both performed well at small forward, with Moore getting the nod to start. Moore finished with 12 points and looked impressive offensively, finishing 4-5 from the floor.

Entering this season, many Pitt fans seemed to have pinned their hopes on Moore as a primary scoring threat behind Gibbs. Moore delivered on Saturday, shooting well and patiently waiting for good shots.

While Moore exceeded on the scoring front on Saturday, Patterson put together a well-rounded game, finishing with seven points, four rebounds and four assists. With Moore on the floor, the Panthers have a dangerous scorer. But Patterson adds quality passing and also a presence on the boards.

The Panthers also have plenty of depth — and height — inside. Although starting power forward Robinson, who sat out on Saturday with a knee injury, is undersized at 6-foot-5, Dante Taylor (6-foot-9), Khem Birch (6-foot-9), Malcolm Gilbert (6-foot-11) and Talib Zanna (6-foot-9) make for a daunting inside presence.

Birch and Gilbert, both freshmen, performed well in their first outing against another team. Gilbert showed off his skills defensively with four blocks while Birch, who looked raw offensively during the Pittsburgh Pro-Am Summer League, showed that he’s already improved his abilities by leading the Panthers with 16 points.

Taylor looked comfortable playing at center and was active inside, finishing with nine points and a team-high nine rebounds. Zanna added eight boards.

Between the shot-blocking from Birch and Gilbert and Taylor and Zanna’s rebounding, the Panthers have an array of abilities inside. When Robinson — a crafty rebounder and scorer with the ability to drive — returns, Pitt will add yet another dimension.

Pitt’s backcourt appears even deeper than the frontcourt. Gibbs leads the way at shooting guard, while Travon Woodall has taken over the starting position at point guard.

Woodall looked smooth and capable at the position against La Roche. He excelled at setting up his teammates, especially in transition, and finished with seven assists. He also appears to have improved his shooting, going 4-5 from the field, including 3-4 from the three.

Redshirt freshman Cameron Wright finished with six points and four assists. He’s a big presence for Pitt on the perimeter at 6-foot-4 and his length makes him capable of being disruptive defensively.

Both of the true freshmen guards — John Johnson and Durand Johnson — looked capable of contributing this year. John Johnson, especially, stood out as he looked confident and unafraid to drive to the basket.

However, he balanced four assists with four turnovers, showing that while he displayed ability as a passer, his inexperience still leads to some bad decisions.

The final guard, redshirt freshman Isaiah Epps, entered the game last and played the least — just nine minutes. But he made the most of those minutes, displaying a smooth stroke from three in going 2-3 from beyond the arc.

If all of the Panthers continue to play well and improve, the Panthers’ coaches could face the problem of having too many players and not enough minutes. Finding a regular nine-man rotation might be an issue this season.

But it’s probably the kind of problem head coach Jamie Dixon loves to have.