March Madness: Seniors add to Pitt’s winning tradition

By Alex Oltmanns

Three years ago, the Pitt men’s basketball team won four games in four days to claim the Big… Three years ago, the Pitt men’s basketball team won four games in four days to claim the Big East Tournament Championship.

And although current seniors Gilbert Brown, Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee were only freshmen on that championship team, it set the standard for the rest of their Pitt careers — a standard of winning.

Flash forward three years, and the trio is one of the winningest classes that Pitt basketball has ever seen.

“I think the whole experience of being able to be a part of that season as freshmen really brought a lot to us,” Brown said. “We got to experience winning at a young age as young college freshmen and it really made a mark on us as players at Pitt.”

This senior class ranks second in Pitt’s history in total wins (110) behind the 2008-09 class and winning percentage (.797) behind the 2004-05 class with a chance to be the winningest group in the school’s history with three more wins and a trip to the Elite Eight.

Brown, who is in his fifth season at Pitt after redshirting his freshman year, came in a year before Wanamaker and McGhee. Since then, the three have accomplished things that few other senior classescan boast about.

In 2009 they climbed to the No. 1 ranking in the country for the first time in school history while also earning the school’s first ever win over another No. 1 ranked team ­­— Connecticut — on Feb. 16 of that year.

“I said how good that class was going to be when we recruited them, but they weren’t ranked high so nobody believed me,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. “I think they’ve proven it in so many different ways.”

Former classmate and current member of the San Antonio Spurs DeJuan Blair played a large role in helping achieve those feats, as he too was a member of this class. If he hadn’t declared for the NBA draft after his sophomore year, he would be in his senior year right now.

The void left by Blair’s departure and his 15.7 points and 12.8 rebounds per game in 2009 would devastate some programs and noticeably affect the strength of the class. But this class hasn’t slowed down without their former teammate.

“It just shows how hard me, Gil and Brad have been working and the rest of the guys to keep fighting and keep getting better even when people doubted us,” McGhee said.

McGhee was forced to step in as the starting center when Blair left. He went from averaging just more than six minutes a game his sophomore year to over 24 minutes the next season.

It was a tough adjustment for McGhee, but he has handled it well and developed into one of the premier defensive big men in the country — and a big factor in Pitt’s Big East regular season championship this season.

“Gary has become a great player, a great center in the Big East as well as the country, and it just shows how much work we put in and how we were dedicated to overcome our adversity as players and students,” Brown said.

This season Brown and Wanamaker achieved personal milestones, both joining the 1,000 point club at Pitt. For Wanamaker, it signifies his hard work as a Panther the past four seasons.

“It’s a great accomplishment, but it’d be even sweeter if we advance to the Final Four and National Championship,” Wanamaker said.

This senior class was joined by a new member two seasons ago, when former student manager Nick Rivers walked on to the team to start his junior season.

While Rivers hasn’t gotten the opportunity to contribute as much on the court as the other three have, he’s had a profound effect on the team.

“Nick brings everything to the team. He brings laughter, he brings seriousness, experience, he brings hard work and leadership of his own,” Wanamaker said. “He brings energy each and every day. We might be down in practice, and Nick will get us going.”

All four are on pace to graduate this year, McGhee and Wanamaker with degrees in communication, Brown with a degree in sociology and Rivers with a degree in economics.

It’s these things, the times in the classroom and around campus, and not just the time on the court that has made their Pitt experiences so memorable.

“Practice moments with coach, things that happened in the dorm our freshman year, just the small things that forever are going to last in our memories,” Brown said. “Those are the things that we cherish and the things about college that most people will never forget.”

Though all those memories are great, winning a National Championship this season would surely be a standout Pitt memory, and a fitting end to a Pitt career that started with postseason success.

“You’re glad to achieve what you could have in your four — five years here for me — and you’re proud of what this team has become this year,” Brown said. “We just want to keep on pushing it and possibly do something great.”