Slimmed-down Young to be big player for Pitt this season |
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Pitt's Michael Young scores past Colorado's Dustin Thomas during the second half of their NCAA second round game Thursday, March 20, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.

A year ago, Pitt forward Michael Young was a little heavier than he should have been, a little slower than could have been and still trying to figure out the college game.

During one frustrating stretch, Young used social media to complain about his shot total.

After a recent exhibition game against Division II Philadelphia University, a maturing Young stressed the necessity for Pitt to play better defense.

“We weren’t making them work hard on defense,” said Young, sounding like former teammate Lamar Patterson, Pitt’s best player last year. “They constantly made shots.”

Now a sophomore with 36 Division I starts, Young, from Duquesne, is emerging as a player to watch entering the 2014-15 season, which opens at 7 p.m. Friday against Niagara at Petersen Events Center.

“He’s not the same player,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.

Young, who averaged 22.5 points and 9.0 rebounds and shot 64.3 percent in Pitt’s two exhibition games, put up 6.0 points and 4.1 rebounds and shot 41.3 percent a year ago.

At 6-foot-9 with the versatility to play forward and center, he has slimmed down to 235 pounds and is quicker and lighter, with a greater understanding of his role with the Panthers.

“He’s a better athlete than he was in high school,” Dixon said. “He’s quicker, jumps better. He’s far exceeded what people thought he was going to be because of hard work.”

Dixon compared Young’s growth chart with former center Talib Zanna, who led Pitt in rebounding and finished second in scoring a year ago.

“Last year, I said (Zanna) was going to be our guy. … He led the ACC in rebounding,” Dixon said. “I don’t know if Mike has that same knack for going after the basketball, but he’s going to create some challenges for the defense. We’ve never really had a guy that skilled at (center).”

Young will help Pitt transition while senior guard Cameron Wright recovers from a broken foot suffered in September. Wright and junior point guard James Robinson believe Pitt’s new-look uptempo offense fits the skill set of this year’s roster.

Last year, the Panthers led the ACC in assists and ranked fourth in scoring.

“The way our coaches run our offense plays to our strengths,” said Robinson, who has started 68 of 69 career games at Pitt. “The coaches mentioned this is the way we want to go.”

Wright, Pitt’s leading returning scorer, said: “The coaching staff has a done a great job recruiting guys to get out and run the floor. I’m really confident that we’re going to be a running team.”

Regardless of offensive production, Dixon, as usual, will emphasize defense to his players. Pitt ranked No. 4 in field-goal defense and No. 5 in scoring defense in its inaugural ACC season.

“We’ve got to defend better,” Dixon said. “Our assists were at the top of the league, scoring, at the top. We’ve got to become the best defensive team in the conference.”

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].

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