Pitt Basketball: Panthers strives to return a top-notch defense to the court
Sunday, October 18, 2009
By Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The men's basketball program at Pitt was built on it and became defined by it. Before the Panthers were turning out NBA players and playing an entertaining brand of offensive basketball, they learned how to win behind one fundamental principle: defense.

Pitt first established itself as a national power because of its defensive prowess. The Panthers were the top team in the Big East in points allowed three successive seasons from 2001-04 and by no coincidence claimed three consecutive conference regular-season championships.

The Panthers were so good on defense that they became identified by it and earned a well-deserved national reputation. As the seasons have passed, the Panthers have continued their winning ways even though their standard of defensive excellence has been in a slow and steady decline.

It's been six years since a Pitt team has been No. 1 in the Big East in scoring defense. The Panthers were a pedestrian fifth in the league the past two seasons and haven't climbed higher than third since the 2003-04 season, when they ranked second in the nation and set a school record for points allowed per game (56.4).

Last season, the Panthers gave up almost 10 more points per game (65.4). Coach Jamie Dixon has taken notice of the drop-off, and as a result, is making defense the No. 1 priority during preseason practices.

"From the first day we got together this school year he's been mentioning that he wants us to be one of the best defensive teams in the country, if not the best," sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs said. "He's definitely stressing that. We want to build that as a team as well because you don't go anywhere without defense."

It's not that Pitt was a bad defensive team last season. But being ranked 87th in NCAA Division I in scoring defense is not very Pitt-like. The truth is, the Panthers went through a natural evolution. As the program climbed to greater heights, Dixon began to recruit better players. And those better players produced on offense in such a manner that the team didn't have to rely so heavily on defense.

But with the departure of four of the team's top five scorers from last season, representing 66 percent of the team's offensive output, a return to the program's fundamental principle is at hand.

"That's the first thing coach Dixon talked to us about," senior guard Jermaine Dixon said. "We're going to be better defensively. None of us are high-profile players like Sam [Young], DeJuan [Blair] and Levance [Fields]. We're definitely going to get ours on the defensive end more."

The composition of this team is well-suited for a return to a defensive mentality. Jamie Dixon has perhaps his most athletic team to date.

Jermaine Dixon is the top returning scorer, but he also is a strong defender who often drew the assignment of defending the other team's top scorer last season.

Senior transfer Chase Adams forged a strong reputation as a defensive pest the past three years at Centenary College, where he averaged 2.7 steals per game last season.

Gilbert Brown, who will return from an academic suspension in December, has established himself as top-notch defender.

And Dixon's freshman recruiting class is stocked with long and athletic players who are eager to learn the Pitt way of playing defense.

"They're buying in," Jermaine Dixon said of the freshmen. "We're already having sessions together. We'll go to my house or Brad [Wanamaker's] house. We'll talk over the defense. They're definitely listening and they're picking things up."

And even though the vast majority of the players on the roster only know typical Pitt defense by reputation and not by experience, they are embracing what their coach is preaching.

"This year we're trying to be at the top of the country in defense and rebounding," sophomore forward Nasir Robinson said. "Defense brings offense, so we're out there trying to lock down, play together and play hard. We have size, athleticism, guys who can jump and rebound. I think we'll go back to that Pitt defense that it used to be."