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Pitt men’s basketball aims to fix rebounding woes with added frontcourt depth

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

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For junior center Michael Young, every basketball season comes down to three words: tournament or bust.

Last season, the team’s season ended with a whimper, losing in embarrassing fashion to George Washington 60-54 in the first round of the NIT Tournament. The team had failed to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time ever in head coach Jamie Dixon’s 12-year tenure,leaving a sour taste in players’ mouths.

Now, after a tumultuous end of the season and an eventful offseason, the Pitt men’s basketball team, with fresh faces and mainstays alike, know a repeat of the 2014-2015 season won’t be acceptable.

“Every loss hurts. That loss hurt,” Young said, referencing the George Washington game. “But not making the tournament hurts even more, because that’s what you work toward all year, and anything else is a disappointment.”

To make the NCAA Tournament in 2015-2016, the Panthers are going to need contributions from a quintet of newcomers, as a tidal wave of transfers and graduated players left Pitt with some vacuous gaps on their roster to fill.

With guard Cameron Wright and forward Derrick Randall graduating, as well as forward Durand Johnson, guard Josh Newkirk and big men Joe Uchebo and Tyrone Haughton transferring, Pitt will need contributions from five additions.

Pitt will count on that group — freshman guard Damon Wilson, junior college transfer center Rozelle Nix, and a trio of graduate transfers in guard Sterling Smith (Coppin State) and forwards Rafael Maia (Brown University) and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa (Richmond) — early, but their teammates say they’re up to the task.

“I’m excited for all the new guys,” senior point guard James Robinson said. “Obviously Rozelle, with his size, he’s gonna be able to impact the game and help our team a lot. Damon is very versatile. We’re definitely gonna look for him to bring some of that versatility to the court and be a good guard for us.”

Robinson thinks that the additions will be key to the team’s success.

“Add those with the other new guys, Alonzo, Ralph, Sterling, and we have a really good team,” Robinson said.

While Smith and Wilson are crucial pick-ups with the losses of Wright, Newkirk and Johnson, the team’s big men are thrilled for some added depth in the frontcourt.

Adding Nix, who is seven-foot, 318 pounds, Maia, six-foot-nine, 245 pounds, and Nelson-Ododa, six-foot-nine, 235 pounds, Pitt will feature a depth of big men it missed last year.

Young said the additions, specifically the trio of big men, should help alleviate some of the Panthers’ rebounding woes, as Pitt finished last in the ACC in defensive boards and 12th out of 15 in overall rebounding.

“Our defense was kind of hurt [last year] because we couldn’t get stops, but we couldn’t get rebounds either.” Young said. This year once we get the rebounding situated, our defensive percentage will go down, because we’ll be getting those rebounds and the other teams won’t get those extra shots.”

It also will allow Young to shift back to playing power forward, and junior Jamel Artis to small forward.

“I think that will be great for us,” said Artis. “We don’t have to be banging [in the paint] as much, so we’ve got some big men that can come in and play some good minutes. I know they’re ready to play, I’ve seen them out there. They look hungry, they’re good.”

Young shared Artis’ enthusiasm for the added depth.

“I’m really excited. I tell those guys all the time I’ve never really been on a team where I’ve had guys that are significantly bigger than me, whether it’s height or weight,” Young said. “So it will be new for me, just like those guys playing with me will be new for them, so I’m excited to see how it works out.”

Despite the struggles last season and the roster turnover this summer, the players aren’t afraid to set their aims high for 2015-2016.

“I’ve got big goals for this season. I just want to get my team to win,” Artis said. “NCAA Tournament. Final Four. ACC Champions. I’m just trying to help my team. Whatever they want me to do, I’ve got it.”

Pitt opens its season Nov. 13 in Okinawa, Japan, as it takes on the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Armed Forces Classic.

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Pitt men’s basketball aims to fix rebounding woes with added frontcourt depth