Oltmanns: Questions Pitt needs to answer in order to make Final Four

By Alex Oltmanns

The Pitt men’s basketball team will begin the regular season tonight against Rhode Island,… The Pitt men’s basketball team will begin the regular season tonight against Rhode Island, marking the start of another highly anticipated season for the team. Expectations abound for the squad, which ranked in the top five in both major preseason polls, the AP and the Big East coaches poll. The team’s roster is loaded with talent, but a few questions remain. If answered positively, the Panthers could very well find themselves in Houston for the Final Four.

1. Can Pitt replace Jermaine Dixon’s defensive presence?

The only starter not returning for this season, Dixon was the team’s best defender last season. He guarded the opposing teams’ best perimeter player every game and was the leader of the Pitt team. But the Panthers think that their returning guards will pick up the defensive slack.

Guards Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker and Travon Woodall all have been in head coach Jamie Dixon’s system long enough to understand the emphasis he puts on defense. Woodall added muscle to his frame and made defense a point of emphasis this summer.

“Coach Dixon’s been talking to me about getting pressure on the ball, and he wants me to be that defensive player, so that’s why I wanted to get stronger,” Woodall said.

2. Can Gary McGhee take the next step in his offensive development?

The senior center has improved every season over the past three years. Known as a premier defender, McGhee’s offensive game continues to evolve. Last year, he averaged 6.9 points and 6.8 rebounds in his first year as a starter. He attended Amar’e Stoudemire’s camp for forwards and centers and was invited to the LeBron James Skills Academy this summer, where he worked on his offensive game, developing new techniques.

“I tried to work on a lot of footwork stuff, working on moves, a lot of hook shots,” McGhee said. “It was a good experience to learn some things.”

3. Can Dante Taylor live up to expectations?

Taylor came to Pitt last year as one of the most highly touted recruits in the country after playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game in high school. As a freshman, Taylor struggled at times, averaging just 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game last season.

But he transformed his body this summer by adding more muscle and turned in several impressive performances in the Greentree Summer League. He looks primed to have a bounce-back year.

4. Will Pitt’s promising young players emerge?

The Panthers are deep this year. The team has enough talent to play 11 players consistently, but that isn’t realistic. So the question that remains is which players out of the group of bench players — J.J. Richardson, J.J. Moore, Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna — will step up and receive significant playing time. All of those players have shown the ability to contribute, but it looks like Moore is ready to play right away and Zanna could very well be Pitt’s best rebounder.

5. Can this Pitt team finally get over that elusive Final Four hurdle?

Pitt hasn’t made it to a Final Four since 1941 — and that was before the modern tournament. But the team has come so close several times throughout the last decade. Its best shot was two years ago, but it lost to Villanova at the buzzer on Scottie Reynolds’ infamous layup.

The Panthers have made it to the Sweet 16 five times in the last decade. But could this be the year they achieve that elusive Final Four berth?

It will take a while to see how these questions will be answered, but we’ll get our first glimpse of the Panthers in a game that counts tonight.