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Trio of transfers prepare for final season at new school

Sterling+Smith+is+one+of+Pitt%27s+three+graduate+transfers+this+year.++Wenhao+Wu+%7C+Staff+Photographer
Sterling Smith is one of Pitt's three graduate transfers this year.  Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

Sterling Smith is one of Pitt's three graduate transfers this year. Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

Sterling Smith is one of Pitt's three graduate transfers this year. Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

By Chris Puzia / Assistant Sports Editor

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Rafael Maia, Alonzo Nelson-Ododa and Sterling Smith aren’t going to set school career records for Pitt men’s basketball — but it’s not for lack of talent.

Their Pitt careers will only last one year, as head coach Jamie Dixon brought in the three players as graduate transfers for this upcoming season after their careers at their respective former schools came to a close. They came from varying conferences and backgrounds — Maia from Brown, Nelson-Ododa from Richmond and Smith from Coppin State — but now share the blue and gold on their uniforms.

The transfers, who comprise half of Pitt’s six new faces to this year’s squad, say they can still make an immediate impact in their lone season as Panthers.

Maia said his newness hasn’t hindered his chemistry with the team or his ability to pick up head coach Jamie Dixon’s game plan.

“I wouldn’t say it’s like, ‘Oh, the graduate transfers are coming here then moving out.’ It’s not like that at all,” Maia said. “Some of my best friends on the team are younger guys. I’m really close with [sophomore forward] Ryan Luther, but I’m also still really close with Sterling and ‘Zo [Nelson-Ododa], who are graduate transfers also.”

Many teams typically bring in most of their incoming players from traditional high school recruiting. This year, Pitt has only one true freshman in guard Damon Wilson, in addition to junior college transfers Rozelle Nix and Jonathan Milligan and the graduate transfers, respectively.

Maia said graduate transfers can benefit Pitt because many of those incoming players already have experience at the college level and can mentor the younger players during their lone season here.

“My role with the team is to bring the experience that I’ve had. I’ve played a really long time at the international level, coming from Brazil on the national team,” said Maia, who picked the Panthers over a final list of USC, California and Nebraska.

Smith, who officially transferred to Pitt on April 24, said spending the summer at Pitt helped the new players catch up and gel with their new teammates. The team often hangs out and goes to the movies, which Smith said pays off in practice.

“It’s a good group of guys, and we get along great,” Smith said. “We hang out a ton off the court, so on the court it makes it easier for new players or incoming freshmen like Dame [Wilson] to feel comfortable and play with each other.”

Smith chose Pitt over Rutgers, Wake Forest and Louisville for his final season. He said he wanted to play at a high level and finish with a winning season, something he never accomplished during his time at Coppin State.

“I wanted to win, and I went to the team that I thought had the best chance to make the tournament,” said Smith, who averaged 13.9 points per game last season at Coppin State. “I lost every single year at my other school, we never had a winning record, we didn’t make the tournament, so this year I just want to win.”

In just a few months around Dixon and the program, the graduate players seem to have already embraced Dixon’s reputed defense-first mentality. Smith said he’s practiced more defensive sets than he ever did at Coppin State, and Nelson-Ododa said he’s prioritized defense and rebounding so far.

“And I can block a lot of shots,” Nelson-Ododa added, laughing. “I’m going to work those areas that they lacked last year, like rebounding and stuff like that.”

Nelson-Ododa officially transferred to Pitt on June 11, and he finished sixth in the Atlantic 10 Conference with 1.7 blocks per game last year, making him an attractive candidate to Dixon.

Dixon said the number of graduate students made for an interesting summer.

“We’ve never really had this,” Dixon said. “These guys have really picked things up well, and they’ve changed a little bit of their game, which I’ve been a little surprised by.”

Dixon said Smith has improved defensively and that the Coppin State transfer has been Pitt’s most consistent player in practice so far.

“Sometimes it may be hard for guys to change after their fourth year in college,” Dixon said. “He’s also improved his passing, getting other guys’ shots. He really plays hard, and when guys play that hard, good things tend to happen. I’m really excited about him.”

Off the court, for any player changing schools, post-college plans factor into their consideration.

Smith graduated with a degree in criminal justice from Coppin State and is pursuing a health and fitness degree at Pitt. Nelson-Ododa is taking classes for a degree in health and physical activity after graduating with a political science degree at Richmond.

Maia, who got his bachelor’s degree from Brown in business, is enrolled in the Katz Graduate School of Business for a master’s in science and marketing.

“I was really fortunate that I was able to finish at Brown, and to have this is something I’m really proud of,” Maia said. “Only more doors are going to open with a master’s degree. So I’m really happy to be here.”

The three graduate students came to Pitt to earn degrees, but they also wanted to compete at a higher level than they had before. Smith said his new team is ready for the challenge.

“There’s no cupcakes on the schedule,” Smith said. “We have a lot of talent and we’re going to face up well against a lot of teams in the ACC.”

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Trio of transfers prepare for final season at new school