Men’s Basketball: Former players analyze Panthers

Brian Batko | February 12, 2012    

Just three weeks ago, as Gilbert Brown watched his former team lose its eighth game in a row, he… Just three weeks ago, as Gilbert Brown watched his former team lose its eighth game in a row, he sat back and tried to analyze what was wrong with this year’s Pitt men’s basketball team.

The Panthers weren’t executing. They weren’t playing with confidence. They weren’t winning.

Brown — who never played on a Pitt team that finished with more than 10 losses in his four years as a Panther — is one of many former players who are scratching their heads over a relatively dismal season thus far.

While many of them are now working, playing or coaching somewhere far from Oakland, they stay connected to the program by exchanging text messages and tweets with the current players and, of course, watching the games.

“I’m only one year removed from the program, so you just sit and watch and wonder, like, ‘Where’d it go?’ — that attitude that we had,” Brown said.

But Brown — a 2011 Pitt graduate who started at forward every game for last year’s Big East regular-season champions — won’t entertain the notion that the Panthers, now trying to claw their way back into the NCAA Tournament picture after dropping their last two contests, are lacking in talent.

“It’s definitely not a talent issue,” Brown said. “Every kid on this team right now has the talent to be a Division I player. It’s never a talent issue.”

Brown sees some similarities between the 2011-2012 Panthers that struggled without injured point guard Travon Woodall for almost two months and the 2009-2010 team that started the season without himself or senior guard Jermaine Dixon. Dixon missed the first nine games with a right foot injury while Brown was serving a semester-long suspension.

“It was tough in the beginning when Jermaine was hurt, but then we got our confidence back,” Brown said, though he was also quick to point out the differences between the two situations, as well.

“It’s kind of hard to look back on that season and compare the two because we weren’t picked in the top 25 to start the season, while [this year’s team] started off ranked high and kind of fell off,” he said.

Julius Page, a former guard who graduated in 2004 and is the 15th leading scorer in school history, noted that times have changed since his days as a Panther, when the Pitt basketball program was largely overlooked and underestimated. Now the team is expected to be among the nation’s elite each year, perhaps on reputation alone.

“It’s a lot different from us because we pretty much started it from the beginning,” Page said. “These guys, they’re sponsored by Nike. We had Adidas, we had to start out with the worst of the worst shoes. And I think everybody on my team had some kind of chip on their shoulders.”

Ever since players like Page and current Pitt assistant coach Brandin Knight helped turn the basketball program around in the early 2000s, Pitt teams have typically been known for their toughness, hustle and physical style of play. Given some of this season’s perplexing losses, many fans and basketball experts wonder if the current team might signify the beginning of the end of that mentality.

Jaron Brown, who graduated with Page in 2004 and still watches every game, isn’t quite ready to go that far, but he can understand such sentiments.

“I think it’s just a different era now,” Brown said. “We may have been a little bit tougher, but we were trying to make a name for ourselves and the University of Pittsburgh. They’re already there so they might not be playing as hard.”

Brown, who many consider to be the quintessential blue-collar Panther of the early 2000s, is sure that head coach Jamie Dixon hasn’t changed his approach but realizes that it might not be enough.

“In due time, everybody’s due for a bad season,” Brown said. “This might just be their year.”

When the Panthers defeated West Virginia on the road two weeks ago, Brown’s former teammate, Page, had other ideas. Page went as far as to tweet after the game, “This team is battle tested and WILL go to [the] final 4.”

“I really believe that,” Page said, insisting that it wasn’t just a declaration made in the heat of the moment. “Me, being around sports for a long time, especially college basketball, I’m not shocked by anything. When you see a team like Butler who was an eight or nine seed last year go to the national championship game and a team like Connecticut that just got hot at the right time, you just feel like any team, once they’re in [the NCAA Tournament], they have a shot.”

Gilbert Brown, who, having been in a Panthers uniform only 11 months ago, knows this team as well as anyone, isn’t about to count this team out, either.

“They just need to have a sense of urgency of where the team is right now and what they can still possibly do to save it,” Brown said. “If they do that, they can end up still having a pretty nice run and possibly do something towards the end of the season.”

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