Unlike last season, Panthers staying relatively healthy

By Jay Huerbin

‘ ‘ ‘ As No. 3 Pitt gets ready to close out the regular season this week, Pitt coach Jamie… ‘ ‘ ‘ As No. 3 Pitt gets ready to close out the regular season this week, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon can look back on what has been a relatively healthy year. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ This is especially true when Pitt is compared to other teams, as Dixon is one of three coaches in Division I basketball to have the same five players start in every game. Tonight’s game against Marquette shouldn’t be any different. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Obviously we haven’t had a situation with the injuries in conference,’ said Dixon. ‘We’ve been pretty steady here.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ That consistency has helped propel the Panthers (26-3, 13-3 Big East) into a powerhouse team that could take the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ But while this year has been without any major injuries, Dixon is all too familiar with the difficulties of having his players out. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Last year, Pitt lost two starters early in the season. Mike Cook injured his knee in a non-conference December game against Duke, and in the next game, Levance Fields injured his left foot in a non-conference game against Dayton ‘mdash; an injury that caused him to miss the next 14 games. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ When Cook and Fields went down last season, Dixon turned to Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin off the bench. His senior guards helped pace the season for the Panthers. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Dixon said that when a player is hurt, it affects the rotation in more ways than most might think. That’s because someone who might not have had a lot of experience must replace the player who replaces the injured player. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘You have to look at the guy who replaces the guy who [was injured],’ said Dixon. ‘That’s almost more important.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ For Pitt, the biggest scare might have come during its last game against Seton Hall when sophomore DeJuan Blair left the game after a collision. But his return five minutes later put to rest any question on his status, and Dixon expects him to play Wednesday. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Without any major injuries on the team, sophomore Brad Wanamaker doesn’t see any difference in the amount of contact in practice compared to last year, meaning that sometimes, the injuries can just turn out to be bad luck. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘[Coach Dixon] keeps it balanced,’ said Wanamaker. ‘Everything we do is competitive and hard. We’re just staying healthy this year.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ The same can’t be said for No. 1 Connecticut, which lost starting guard Jerome Dyson to a knee injury. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ This goes for No. 13 Marquette, which Pitt hosts Wednesday. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ The Golden Eagles (23-6, 12-4) lost senior guard Dominic James to a broken foot after he played only four minutes in their 93-82 loss at Connecticut on Feb. 25. James, who averaged 11.4 points per game this season, is out for the rest of the season. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Still, the Panthers aren’t taking Marquette lightly. Last year, Pitt was in a similar battle against injuries but went on to upset Georgetown in the Big East Championship. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘I don’t want to say they’re a different team [without James],’ said Wanamaker about Marquette. ‘They have players that are ready to step up … [Maurice] Ackers has been playing all year, so I think he’s comfortable with stepping up and playing as good as Dominic James had been.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ With two games left in the regular season and a chance to clinch a two-day bye in the Big East tournament, Dixon said the team is focusing on the rest of its games one at a time. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Injuries or not, Dixon said it’s important for the players to focus on one thing. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘You just try to play your best basketball,’ he said. ‘That’s the bottom line.’