For the past decade, the Pittsburgh Panthers (25-9, 13-5 Big East) have been very competitive. They are one of only seven teams in the country to qualify for the Big Dance each of the last nine seasons and over those past nine seasons, they have more wins than any other Big East club. Last year, they tied for second in the Big East with West Virginia and Villanova and for the 10thstraight year went to the NCAA Tournament. At the Big Dance, they went two and out, capping what was a good season but not as good as it might have been. In that second game, they lost to Xavier 71-68. This season Pitt welcomes back four starters, some seasoned reserves and a few fine frosh and redshirted players, all of whom may just take them deep into the tournament.
The heart, soul and definitive athlete is small forward Gilbert Brown (6-6, 210 lbs., SR, #24, 10.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 23.7 mpg, .497FG, .396 3PT, .714 FT). Brown is one of those players who simply won’t give up. Last season, he came off the bench and three times he scored 20 or more points. However Brown, who likes to badger and bother opponents when on “D,” can be an inconsistent performer, shooting the lights out one night and then missing everything the next. His height can be a hindrance in the frontcourt when he has to try and stop bigger players.
Power forward Nasir Robinson (6-5, 220 lbs., JR, #35, 6.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.6 apg, 24.9 mpg, .495 FG, .313 3PT, .419 FT) doesn’t offer as much firepower as one would like, but he’s a sound rebound man and fine defender. Robinson is a terrible free throw shooter, which is always a cause of concern when teams are fouling in the paint. This weakness makes him a less effective scoring threat in the paint as chances are he’s going to miss from the line.
At center, senior Gary McGhee (6-10, 250 lbs., SR, #52, 6.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 0.6 apg, 24.2 mpg, .623 FG, .000 3PT, .580 FT) showed major improvement last season. McGhee’s offensive rebound rate was 12.1% (129th) and his defensive rebound rate was 20.3% (159th). Both of these numbers are solid. Additionally, his shot blocking percentage, which was 7.5%, ranked him 73rdin the nation. McGhee is also a decent inside shooter.
Swingman Dante Taylor (6-9, 240 lbs., SO, #11, 4.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 0.1. apg, 13.9 mpg, .584 FG, .000 3PT, .574 FT) also proved to be a fine rebounder on both ends of the court. Last season, Taylor was out of shape; this season he is back sporting bulk and muscles, which should help his inside play even more. Look for him to be at center or forward at various times in the game.
When you look at the starters in the front, especially with swing Taylor thrown in, it becomes evident that the Pitt forwards and centers will be one huge force with which teams will have to contend. This may be the toughest frontcourt in the conference. There’s plenty of banging and scoring potential in this group.
The backcourt will feature Brad Wanamaker (6-4, 210 lbs., SR, #22, 12.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 32.5 mpg, .439 FG, .357 3PT, .720 FT), the team’s former small forward, at shooting guard. Wanamaker is a tough, hardnosed player who is smart and aggressive. He can ably slash to the basket, toss one in from downtown or draw the foul and go to the line. Quick and big, it will be tough for many teams to matchup with him. He’s a solid defender, rebounder and shooter. He’ll set the workman-like tone for this team.
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Combo guard Ashton Gibbs will anchor the point spot (6-2, 190 lbs., JR, #12, 15.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.8 apg, 34.6 mpg, .397 FG, .390 3PT, .884 FT). Although not so much a passer as a shooter, he’s sure-handed and smart. Gibbs is also able to defend without fouling. Last season his 40-minute foul fate was 1.4, making him 11th in the nation. A 39% three-point shooter and 88% free throw shooter, Gibbs was chosen as the Big East’s Most Improved Player last year.
Redshirted freshman forward Talib Zanna used last season to develop his offensive skills. He has a fine mid-range jump shot and is able to attack off the dribble. Zanna is exceptionally solid on defense and should see plenty of minutes this year. Freshman forward J.J. Moore is a small forward with a keen shot and the ability to create scoring chances. He will see action off the bench.
Backup point guard Travon Woodall (5-11, 190 lbs., SO, #1, 5.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.2 apg, 20.2 mpg, .387 FG, .269 3PT, .674 FT) is this team’s major playmaker. He’ll play the point at times and when he does the sharpshooting Gibbs may slide over to the two spot. Woodall brings a great amount of energy to the game. His shot is good but not devastating. He has to stay away from the three, which he cannot hit.
The Panthers’ offensive efficiency was 111.5 (40th) and their defensive efficiency stood at 90.7 (26th). Pitt was good on offense and very good on defense. Opponents effective field goal shooting was at 44.6%, which placed Pitt 22nd nationally in that category. Team offenses when compared to the Panthers’ underperformed by about 3% on threes and 6% on twos. That stat regarding twos reveals a major anomaly between Pittsburgh’s scoring and their opponent’s. On offense Pitt scored just 23.2% of their points from beyond the arc, hitting only 34.3%. The team’s bread and butter on offense was from two-point territory.
Head coach Jamie Dixon (188-54 in seven years at Pitt and overall) has his work cut out for him in one way—the wealth of talent that he possesses will demand keen time management skills. Last year, Dixon tied an NCAA record for most wins in seven seasons as a head coach with 188. His winning percentage is presently .777. That’s darn good for a guy who has only had one college head coaching job. In 2004, Pitt took the Big East Regular Season Championship and Dixon earned the Big East Coach of the Year Award. In 2008, he guided Pitt to the Big East Tournament Championship. Can he get them to the Final Four?
To many, the Pittsburgh Panthers are a nationally ranked, top five team. The club will vie for the Big East Championship with Syracuse, Villanova and Georgetown. There’s no doubt about it, this team from the Steel City is a contender. They are tough and driven and possess a bench that can come in, score points and defend.
Their biggest competitor will be Syracuse. In fact the Orange could be the dominant team in the Big East. But that type of prognosticating will simply fuel Pitts’ energy. You get the feeling that the Pittsburgh Panthers can see their goal, believe in it and will pursue it to the end. The Panthers, who are ranked 11th nationally, will finish first in the Big East and go to the Final Four in 2011. This is the year that Dixon and his team push through the season and then the tournament.