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Pitt found opponent it had hoped for in Hawaii

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Pitt bench raise up as Joshua Ko hits a 3-pointer against Wake Forest in the seond half during the ACC Tournament Thurday, March 13, 2014 in Greensboro at Greensboro Coliseum.

WAILUKU, Hawaii — Illinois was an interesting test case for Pitt coach Jamie Dixon when crafting this season’s early nonconference schedule.

Like the Panthers did late Friday night, Illinois faced Hawaii three days before playing in the Maui Invitational.

Illinois defeated Hawaii in 2012 then completed the four-games-in-six-days marathon by ousting USC, Chaminade and Butler under then-first-year coach John Groce.

“Illinois did it a couple years back when they won Maui,” Dixon said prior to the game against the Rainbow Warriors at War Memorial Gym in Wailuku. “They beat Hawaii at the buzzer.”

The Illini’s closest game was their first, a 78-77 overtime victory over Hawaii on a last-second 3-pointer.

Illinois won each of its three tournament games by at least 17 points.

Taking note, Dixon, a former Hawaii assistant, believed it would benefit his young team, which features three sophomore starters, to schedule a game on the island prior to the tournament.

“(Hawaii) has been playing a game on a different island each year,” Dixon said. “Knowing the coach and their program, I planned this awhile back. I thought about going over to Honolulu (where Hawaii plays most of its home games) and playing on the back end of the trip. But when we joined the ACC, we knew we were going to be in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on the back end (Pitt visits Indiana on Dec. 2). This was a good opportunity for us to get out there on the front end.”

Dixon will critique his players in two specific areas during the trip: offensive rebounding and team chemistry.

The Panthers were outrebounded 33-31, including 13-7 on the offensive glass, in their previous game, a 63-56 home win over Samford.

“Long rebounds is something we’ve been emphasizing,” Dixon said. “We seemingly can’t get to those. Our guards have to get more rebounds. Thirteen offensive rebounds to our seven is not satisfactory.”

Players’ familiarity with each other and the system should improve offensive rebounding and the team’s overall performance, Dixon said.

“Guys are in game situations we haven’t seen them in before, and we don’t know how they’re going to handle them,” Dixon said. “We see it in practice. We need to see it in games. We feel we have the right guys playing the right minutes.”

How much playing time Pitt sophomore guard Joshua Ko, a native of Kailua, Hawaii, will receive is uncertain.

Ko, who played two minutes against Niagara in the opener, hopes to see action with family and friends in attendance.

“It would be nice for my family to see me play,” said Ko, Hawaii’s Gatorade Player of the Year who could have stayed at home and played for Division II Chaminade or Hawaii-Hilo but selected the Panthers and an opportunity to play Division I. “Hopefully, I can find enough tickets.”

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

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