PITTSBURGH — Durand Johnson caught the ball on the wing and rather than take an open shot, decided to dribble to the top of the key.
When a Maryland defender closed in, the freewheeling Pittsburgh sophomore swingman threw up a contested 3-pointer that splashed through the net.
Rather than peek over his shoulder at Jamie Dixon to see if he’d violated one of the coach’s rules about shot selection, Johnson raced back down court to look for his man on defense.
Call it a mix of maturation by the ebullient Johnson and a bit of mellowing by Dixon, who has the Panthers soaring in their inaugural season in the ACC.
Pitt improved to 14-1 and 2-0 in its new league after a 20-point romp over the Terrapins on Monday, a victory fueled by Johnson — who scored a career-high 17 points — and key contributions from freshmen Michael Young, Jamel Artis and Josh Newkirk.
While senior forward Lamar Patterson continues to evolve into one of the best all-around players in the ACC, the kids have proven they’re more than all right for the Panthers, who are providing a new spin to an old narrative heading into today’s game against Wake Forest (11-5, 1-1).
Yes, Pitt remains built on rebounding and defense. It’s just not the only thing it does anymore. The Panthers are averaging a healthy 77 points a game and hardly resemble the sometimes plodding program that ground opponents into submission during their supremely successful final decade in the Big East.
“Jamie, he wants us to play fast, get it up and down, not play the Princeton offense, that’s what he says,” Artis said. “Every day we go run the floor just like he tells us.”
And for once, Dixon is serious.
The Panthers have found a gear that has produced promising early returns. Pitt trailed by 15 early in its ACC debut against N.C. State last weekend only to dominate the final 35 minutes in a 74-62 victory.
Maryland hung around for the first 18 minutes before collapsing. Led by Johnson during an 11-2 run to close the first half, Pitt pulled away in the second for a 79-59 win that didn’t feel competitive once the Panthers went up by double digits.
“I know the guys look at me to be the energy guy,” said Johnson, who is typically the first player off the bench. “I just want to be the guy that brings the team up.”
He’s hardly the only one.
Artis and Young, who play the bulk of the minutes at power forward, have overcome some early tentativeness to provide an athletic one-two punch. Young poured in 13 points against the Wolfpack while Artis added four points and three rebounds in 10 efficient minutes against Maryland.
“We know Lamar and them, they can’t do it all by themselves,” Artis said. “So we try and go out there and play our game.”
One that appears to be fitting in quite nicely in the ACC. Newkirk, who Dixon calls one of the fastest players he’s ever coached, has shaken loose from a mini-slump in December. He made 3 of 4 shots against the Terrapins and chipped in a pair of assists while spelling James Robinson at point guard.
“It gave me a confidence boost,” Newkirk said. “I’m just trying to do the little things right.”
So is Johnson, who was primarily a spot-up shooter last season. Not anymore. Challenged by Dixon to use his athleticism for more than standing behind the 3-point line and chucking it, Johnson has responded by finding ways to contribute when his shot doesn’t cooperate. Johnson endured a stretch in December where he made just 5 of 27 3-pointers but didn’t see his playing time take a hit because he was still making an impact. He has 23 assists against just 14 turnovers and is becoming a willing rebounder.
“He’s a different player than he was 2 years ago,” Dixon said. “I told him the other day, ‘You’re a rebounder.’ He’s got nearly a 2-1 assist/turnover ratio. He’s improved and he gives us other things.”
Maybe, but don’t expect Johnson to become more demure if he’s got the ball in his hands and a chance to score. While his shooting may be streaky, his belief in himself is not.
“As a shooter, it’s just confidence,” he said. “You think the next shot is going in no matter if you miss.”