Basketball: Panthers host preseason media day

By Brody Engelhard

Pitt freshmen Khem Birch and Malcolm Gilbert have already taken steps to prepare for their first… Pitt freshmen Khem Birch and Malcolm Gilbert have already taken steps to prepare for their first year of collegiate basketball.

Since arriving on campus, the two have worked diligently to bulk up, Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said at the annual men’s and women’s basketball preseason media opportunity on Thursday. For many Pitt fans, the media opportunity signaled the beginning of college basketball season.

The women’s team started practice on Oct. 3, and the men’s team will hold its first official practice today. But the athletes started preparing for the season long before their first practices. For Birch and Gilbert, the hard work is already paying off.

“The important thing to mention about those two guys is that they have been here for about a month and a half, and Khem put on 10 pounds and Malcolm’s put on 14 pounds. So it just goes to show what hard work and being around guys that work hard will do,” Dixon said.

Currently, Birch stands at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds. Malcolm is 6-foot-11 and 235 pounds.

Sophomore walk-on Aron Nwankwo said that Birch and Gilbert, along with John Johnson and Durand Johnson, make up a solid freshman class.

“They work hard, they play hard, they’re talented and willing to learn, and I think they are ready to really help us out,” he said.

Birch, a McDonald’s All-American, and Gilbert join a frontcourt that might be undermanned before the start of the season as senior forward Nasir Robinson undergoes surgery on his right knee this morning.

Pitt anticipates Robinson to sit out three to four weeks and return in time for the Panthers’ Nov. 11 season opener against Albany.

The surgery marks Robinson’s second on his right knee. He had a torn meniscus repaired last year, causing him to miss the first three games of the season. Dixon said that the team physicians don’t believe Robinson is suffering from another tear, but they won’t know exactly what is causing Robinson’s discomfort until beginning the surgery.

Robinson averaged 9.4 points and 4.9 rebounds for Pitt last season.

Dixon added that if the injury keeps Robinson out of games, then redshirt sophomore guard and forward Lamar Patterson might make an appearance in the post.

Even though Robinson is expected to return in time for the season opener, the men’s team is still relatively young ­— but Dixon isn’t concerned.

“Our four freshmen, as well as our two redshirt freshmen, leave us with, on paper, a young team, but we don’t ever use that as an excuse,” he said. “We anticipate those guys getting better and helping us in a lot of ways.”

Four of the freshmen are guards, including redshirt freshmen Cameron Wright and Isaiah Epps. Dixon said he can see the difference between the true freshmen and the redshirt freshmen, adding that he thinks Wright will be ready to contribute.

“I think Cam is ready to go,” he said. “Isaiah had some injuries.”

Wright said he’s just anxious to start playing.

“Honestly, I just want to play,” Wright said. “I want to be out there and do anything to help my teammates.

The Panthers lost three seniors from last year’s roster but return two starters in senior guard Ashton Gibbs and Robinson. Gibbs, Pitt’s leading returning scorer, averaged 16.8 points last season. Dixon said he’d like to see Gibbs and the rest of the players on the perimeter improve defensively.

“I think [Gibbs is] doing a better job of attacking the basket and drawing other people,” Dixon added. “That will allow him to kick and find open guys, too.”

Redshirt junior Travon Woodall will likely step into the point-guard position this season, a position in which Pitt has excelled throughout the years. Standout point guards from past teams include current assistant coach Brandin Knight (1999-2003) and Levance Fields (2005-2009).

Woodall said “it’s only right” for him to take the lessons he learned from past guards in order to become the next player to step into that position.

He said he learned aggressiveness, scoring and defense from Carl Krauser (2001-2006), poise and how to be a coach on the floor from Knight, and the importance of a solid assist-to-turnover ratio from Fields.

Fans should also watch for high-flying sophomore J.J. Moore, who won the dunking contest at Pitt’s Blue and Gold Scrimmage last year. This season, Moore said, his goal is to be a team player.

“[It’s] basically [for the team to] be together and come together through the thick and thin,” he said.

The Pitt women’s basketball team — comprised of six sophomores and six freshmen — enters this season as the youngest team in Division I basketball. The Panthers have no juniors or seniors on their roster.

Pitt will have to replace 74.6 percent of its scoring from last season, as well as its top four scorers, 64.1 percent of its rebounds and 75.8 percent of its total assists.

But the team does have ESPN’s No.-19 nationally ranked recruiting class, the highest ranked incoming class in school history. The class includes three top-100 players in Loliya Briggs (ranked No. 50), Brianna Kiesel (No. 58) and Chyna Golden (No. 97).

Kiesel said academics and attention from the coaching staff drew her to Pitt.

“Coach  B  used  to  call  me  all  the  time,” Kiesel said. “She  came  to  my  house,  she  came  to  my  championship  game,  which  we  lost  unfortunately,  but  she  was  still  there  for  support.  It  just  blew  my  mind  as  a  coach  she  took  the  time  out  of  her  day  to  come  support  somebody  that  she  was  recruiting  and  that  really  drew  my  attention.”

Head coach Agnus Berenato said she is excited for the opportunity to be a teacher for the young team.

“To be honest with you, I — along with my staff — we are so passionate because everyday we go into practice and it’s high energy, everybody is listening, everybody is eager to learn. We are about being teachers,” she said.

With the younger roster, Berenato said the team’s greatest strengths — emotion and enthusiasm — will also be its greatest weaknesses.

“They all think they’re going to score,” she said. “She thinks she is going to score 18 and she thinks she is going to score 18 and if we score everything that they think, we’re going to have like 148 points or something. I think that’s really fun, and that’s good.”

The Panthers will also welcome redshirt sophomore transfer Abby Dowd to the court. Dowd transferred from the University of Buffalo to Pitt last season. Dowd said she felt like her college experience was insufficient at Buffalo, but she enjoys the amount of school pride and cohesion present on Pitt’s campus.

“I loved my coaches, I loved my team, it really was not anything to do with athletics,” she said. “I had a great freshman season, but at the end of the day I was just left wanting more … it’s funny because now I’m here and I walk around school and sometimes I’m just astounded I go here.”

After she arrived at Pitt, Dowd sent an e-mail to Berenato, asking to become a practice player. Due to compliance rules, however, the Panthers are only allowed to have male practice players. So Bereanto decided to add Dowd, a Mid-American Conference All-Freshman team selection, to the roster as a walk-on.

When Berenato saw Dowd play, she knew she needed her on the team. Dowd has since earned a scholarship.

“She can stroke the three and she can set a screen … she was just very smart,” Berenato said.

Redshirt sophomore Ashlee Anderson is Pitt’s top returning scorer. She averaged 5.2 points and 2.5 rebounds per game last season while starting 23 of 31 games. Classmate Leeza Burdgess played in all 30 games and averaged 3.6 points and 3 rebounds.

Pitt will hold its annual Fan Fest along with the Maggie Dixon Heart Health Fair and Blue and Gold Scrimmage next Saturday, Oct. 22.

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