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Pitt tips off hoops season against Niagara

By Chris Puzia / Sports Editor

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After almost seven months removed from its third-round loss to Florida in the 2014 March Madness tournament, Pitt basketball is preparing to play another meaningful game.

That game comes in the team’s season opener against Niagara this Friday at 7 p.m.

Sophomore forward Michael Young said Pitt played a similar-style team in its exhibition against Philadelphia.

“[Niagara] is similar to the Philadelphia team. They have a bunch of guards, basically they’re all guards on the court,” Young said. “It’s the beginning of the year, everyone’s confidence is high. They’re going to come out confident, and this is going to be one of the biggest games of the year for them.”

Pitt won its two exhibition games leading up to this season, defeating IUP 72-58 on Oct. 31 and beating Philadelphia 82-71 on Nov. 7. Young averaged 22.5 points per game and nine rebounds per game in the two contests.

Young said games against smaller opponents are “a different look than you get in the ACC.”

“To play games like that, it has kind of an NCAA Tournament feel,” he added. “You don’t know what type of team they’re going to be … you get different styles.”

Junior point guard James Robinson said Pitt did not take its exhibition opponents lightly and used IUP and Philadelphia to tune up for the regular season grind.

“We had two exhibition games that we took as if they were to count,” Robinson said. “We had a really good opportunity to learn from them and get better from them, but now it actually does count Friday, so we’re really excited.”

Head coach Jamie Dixon led the Panthers to a 26-10 record last season as well as a 11-7 record in ACC play. Pitt won its first 10 games before losing to Cincinnati in the Jimmy V Classic in New York on Dec. 17.

With the graduation of last season’s two leading scorers, Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, Pitt will try to spread the offense around to pick up the scoring burden those two left. Dixon has a more versatile team than in past years and may move some players around in the early non-conference schedule, including playing Young as a center as well as a power forward.

Dixon said that playing Young as a center is “something I think will occur and it’s something we’ve been practicing pretty much on a daily basis.”

“With Derrick [Randall] healthy and Joe [Uchebo] continuing to perform, I think we have some flexibility in that area to do it both ways,” he added.

Randall, a senior center, is just one of several players dealing with injuries as the season opens. Senior guard Cameron Wright is still recovering from surgery on his broken left foot in September.

“We can’t wait for him to get back, but, in the meantime, the guys that we have, we have confidence in them,” Robinson said. “Coach does a really good job in practice of switching up lineups.”

Redshirt forward Durand Johnson will play his first meaningful game on Friday since tearing his right ACL on Jan. 11. He averaged 13 points per game in the two exhibition games.

Randall sprained his ankle in Pitt’s Blue-Gold Scrimmage on Oct. 19.

To fill the scoring holes these players leave in their absences, Robinson will control the tempo and facilitate the team’s offensive flow. However, he may share the court more with sophomore guard Josh Newkirk.

“Having two point guards on the floor is going to give us a chance to get out in transition,” Robinson said. “If he’s in and I’m out, I’m going to be encouraging him from the side. I know when I’m in, he always has my back.”

In a couple weeks, Pitt travels to Hawaii to play in the Maui Invitational Tournament, where Pitt could play Kansas State or San Diego State, and has the opportunity to face preseason No. 2 Arizona as well.

But before Pitt travels to Hawaii, it has some other non-conference games to play. The first comes against Niagara, before the team plays again at home on Sunday against Samford.

“This Niagara team is going to be little, scrappy, they’re going to try to drive our bigs and get fouls on us early,” Young said. “They’re going to want to come out and prove themselves and show what they can do.”

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Pitt tips off hoops season against Niagara