Texas’ big man appears to be getting a bigger role in the offense.
Junior center Dexter Pittman looks to continue his fast start to the season Monday when the Longhorns open the Maui Invitational with a first-round game against Saint Joseph’s.
At 6-foot-10 and 299 pounds, Pittman has seen his playing time increase while slimming down after arriving on campus two years ago weighing 366 pounds. Pittman had 11 points and 10 rebounds in a first-round win over Austin Peay in last season’s NCAA tournament, and he also appears to have benefited from attending Pete Newell’s camp for centers this summer.
Pittman has totaled 20 points and 10 rebounds for the sixth-ranked Longhorns (2-0) this season. He made his second career start Wednesday and had 10 points and six boards in a 76-51 win over Tulane.
While he was limited to 15 minutes due to foul trouble, Pittman’s improved physique and more polished play make an already-imposing Texas front line that features Damion James and Connor Atchley that much better.
“When Dexter gets the ball inside, he’s going to score,” said James, averaging 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. “For us to be where we want to be, Dexter’s got to help us a lot.”
A.J. Abrams, who made 19 of 38 shots from 3-point range in the NCAA tournament to help Texas reach the regional final last season, has picked up where he left off. He’s 8-of-17 from beyond the arc in the first two games and is averaging a team-high 18.0 points.
The senior guard is already the school’s all-time leader in 3s with 292.
A win Monday would give Rick Barnes - the winningest coach in the program’s history - his 250th victory with the Longhorns in his 11th season.
This is the third time Texas has participated in the Maui Invitational, placing fifth in 1993 and third in 2004.
Saint Joseph’s (1-1) has been idle since losing 73-69 in overtime at Holy Cross on Nov. 16. Ahmad Nivins had 17 points and 12 rebounds for his second straight double-double, but the Hawks squandered a 12-point lead in the final 14:40 and were held to 2-of-6 shooting from the field in the extra period.
Nivins has totaled 42 points and 25 rebounds while shooting 83.3 percent (15-for-18) in his first two games, but the 6-9 senior has been unable to prevent Saint Joseph’s from being outrebounded in either game. With Texas’ imposing front line of Pittman, the 6-7 James - one of six returning Longhorns to average a double-double in 2007-08 - and the 6-10 Atchley, undersized Hawks forwards Idis Hilliard (6-6) and Tasheed Carr (6-4) must help Nivins.
Saint Joseph’s, participating in its first Maui Invitational, posted two wins over Atlantic 10 rival Xavier while the Musketeers were ranked last season. However, the Hawks have lost six straight to non-conference Top 25 teams.
Texas has won all three meetings with Saint Joseph’s. The schools have not met since the first round of the 1980 National Invitational Tournament.
Monday’s winner will play No. 8 Notre Dame or Indiana in the semifinals Tuesday.