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Island Warriors: Pitt men’s basketball opens season in Japan

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Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

By Chris Puzia / Assistant Sports Editor

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Sheldon Jeter was ready to take on the 11-hour flight on Tuesday to Pitt’s men’s basketball season opener — as long as he got the right seat.

“As long as I’m not stuck in the middle seat, I’m happy,” the junior forward said. “When we went to Hawaii, I got stuck in the middle seat in the middle row. It was a rough flight. I’m looking forward to just getting over there and playing.”

Once Jeter and the team landed, it became all business as the team prepared for its season opener in Okinawa, Japan, against No. 9 Gonzaga University on Friday at 7 p.m.

However, the team that awaits the Panthers across the world for the Armed Forces Classic will ensure the trip is no vacation.

Gonzaga finished last season 35-3 before losing to Duke in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs return with star forward Kyle Wiltjer, who averaged 16.8 points per game and shot 47 percent from 3-point range last season.

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said it was no secret that Wiljer is the focus of most teams’ scouting reports facing Gonzaga.

“[Wiltjer] is a guy everybody knew about,” Dixon said. “Watching him out of high school, there was no secret. The amazing thing is that he’s a fifth-year guy. There aren’t many fifth-year guys around that were ranked that high coming out.”

For Pitt, defense will be a focal point against a Zags team that averaged 79 points per game last year — good for 10th in the country. Pitt junior forward Jamel Artis said strong defense, in addition to smart passing, is the best way for players to see the court on Friday and beyond.

“I’m a good defender, it’s just being in the right spot at the right times,” Artis said. “Out on the wing, I can make a lot of plays. If the defense collapses on me, I can kick it out to my teammates. I’m a good passer. [Dixon] wants a lot of defense out of the wing, so that’s what we gotta do to win.”

Jeter said he has also improved his core skills, now that he is in his second year in Dixon’s system after playing his freshman season at Vanderbilt University.

“My confidence is sky-high, honestly, because it seems like now everything is just easier,” Jeter said. “Last year, I was always out of place, whereas this year I just happen to always be in the right spots.”

Last season, Pitt traveled to Hawaii in November to compete in the EA Sports Maui Invitational. The Panthers lost their first game on the island against the University of Hawaii on Nov. 21, before they played in the tournament. With another early-season game following a long flight this year, Artis said the team must be prepared to come out strong.

“No excuses,” Artis said. “They’ve got to take the flight, too. It starts when we get on the flight, and we just have to think about one thing — beating Gonzaga.”

In Pitt’s lone tune-up exhibition against Gannon University on Nov. 6, Artis tied for the team lead with 13 points off the bench, chipping in four rebounds as well. Jeter scored six points in the 80-50 win.

With only that exhibition to evaluate his team’s performance against outside competition, Dixon said Friday’s game will help the coaching staff get an initial read on the squad. Still, he emphasized that the result against Gonzaga will not determine the Panthers’ season.

“This isn’t going to determine our season. It’s obviously a big game, we understand that,” Dixon said. “But if we play great, if we don’t play great, it’s not gonna have any impact on what we do next week or next month. It’s a marathon.”

Despite his reservations to deem Friday an overly significant game, Dixon acknowledged that the location and caliber of the opponent will make for exciting television for the ESPN broadcast.

“There will be 180 games or so Friday and Saturday, but this will be the best one to watch,” Dixon said.

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Island Warriors: Pitt men’s basketball opens season in Japan