Yes it has only been three games and no the competition hasn’t been very good at all, but Pitt head basketball coach Jamie Dixon may be able to do something this season that he hasn’t been able to the past few seasons.
That would be being able to turn to a bench that has depth and talent.
Through the Panthers three contests this season, Dixon has had the opportunity to go 12 deep against some weak competition, but of the 12 that are part of his regular rotation, the seven guys coming off the pine all bring something that can help the Panthers throughout the season.
Through three games, the Panthers bench has averaged 46.3 points per game, including a season-best 50 points against Detroit. They followed that up with a 45-point effort in a blowout win Wednesday against Cornell.
“We have some skill,” said Dixon. “We’ve been playing 12-13 guys. I don’t know that will continue all the way through, but we have some guys playing really well off the bench.”
One of those guys is redshirt junior Chris Jones who has experience as a starter and has adjusted nicely to coming off the bench as a shooter.
That was evident Wednesday night when Pitt steamrolled Cornell when Jones scored 15 points, knocking down 3-of-4 shots from behind the arc.
“We have a lot of guys that can come off the bench,” said Jones. “We are doing a good job. We have guys that can come in and play good defense and be energy guys and shoot the ball well. I think the bench is doing a good job of following up the starting five.”
Jones and Cameron Johnson add quality shooting off the bench for Dixon, something that has been invisible from Pitt teams the past couple seasons.
“Chris is getting better and better and is getting back in a rhythm,” said Dixon. ”
It’s not just perimeter shooting that the bench can bring to the table as they can add frontcourt depth as well.
Sophomore Ryan Luther posted his first career double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds in the win over Detroit and junior Sheldon Jeter posted a double-double in Pitt’s season opening win vs. St. Joseph’s College.
“I’m definitely a lot more comfortable,” said Luther. “I think most of that has been from improving on defense because once I get into the flow of the defense everything else comes easier, especially on the offensive end. I think emphasizing defense has really gotten me into the flow of the game rather than being cold.”
Throw Rafael Maia into the mix and Dixon can bring three solid options off the bench to spell starters Michael Young and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa. Not only can the bench add some scoring punch, but they can effectively help on the glass, which was a terrible weakness for Pitt last season.
“Rafael is playing better so we feel real good about him,” Dixon said. “Ryan had a big night the other night. Sheldon has been good. I like the interchangeable parts we can bring off the bench.”
Pitt also can bring a couple of young ball handlers off the bench in junior Jonathan Milligan and freshman Damon Wilson, who can spell starters James Robinson and Sterling Smith. Both Milligan and Wilson have shown some promise at times early on, which is an encouraging sign for Dixon.
“The defense is always the challenge,” Dixon said. “Damon has a real knack to make plays in transition. It’s just going to be getting used to the new rules and the college game. He’s been doing well considering how much practice he missed.”
Of course none of that matters if the bench can’t produce when the competition gets better and there’s a lot of basketball to be played this season before we can make a real assessment of the talent on this Pitt team.
But there is a lot more talent at Dixon’s disposal than he has had the past couple of seasons.
If he works things correctly, this bench could turn out to be a very nice weapon as the season goes on.