Men’s Basketball: Pitt to take on tough Rhode Island team

By Tony Jovenitti

Last year, most of the college basketball world had low expectations for the Pitt men’s… Last year, most of the college basketball world had low expectations for the Pitt men’s basketball team, as the Panthers were picked to finish ninth in their conference by the Big East coaches and were not ranked in any national polls.

But Pitt surprised everyone and finished second in the conference. Now, Pitt will open the 2010-11 season tonight with much higher national outlook. Not only were the Panthers picked to win the Big East, but the AP also ranks them No. 5 in the nation.

“I think all of our expectations are high,” Pitt forward Gilbert Brown said. “The goal is to exceed all those expectations that everyone puts out there for us and to do something special.”

The Panthers will have an early chance to prove themselves tonight when they host Rhode Island at the Petersen Events Center at 7 p.m.

The Rams have been one of the more consistent programs in the Atlantic 10 over the past 10 years. They have had five 20-win seasons, and since 2007, Rhode Island has been one of the nation’s best offensive teams. It is 7th nationally in field goals per game (28.4), 10th in points per game (78.6) and 10th in total field goals made during that stretch (2,922).

Much of that success can be attributed to head coach Jim Baron, who is in his 10th season coaching the Rams. Baron is no stranger to Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon.

“We played him a number of years ago when he was in St. Bonaventure, and also Rhode Island. So we’re familiar with him,” Dixon said at a news conference. “He’s a good friend and I respect him immensely with how he’s built programs.”

Dixon respects Baron so much that the Rhode Island coach has had some influence on Pitt’s coaching staff.

“We’ve hired a couple guys that he recommended over the years – Coach [Joe] Lombardi and Coach [Pat] Skerry.”

Lombardi is now the head coach at Indiana (Pa.), which the Panthers defeated 73-56 Thursday night.

The Rams are one of the tougher teams that the Panthers have opened a season against.

“Go look at the first week and you’ll probably not see two teams this good playing against each other in the first week of the season,” Dixon said. “Nobody of our caliber is playing a team of their caliber.”

Last year, the Rams finished 26-10 and made it all the way to the Final Four of the National Invitation Tournament before falling to North Carolina. Dixon attributes their success to senior point guard Marquis Jones and senior forward Delroy James.

Last year, Jones finished 22nd nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio with 2.52:1, and James is the team’s top returning scorer with 10.5 points per game.

“Jones does a good job running their team, and James is a guy that can make some things happen on his own,” Dixon said. “He likes to take people off the dribble and they try to create some matchup problems.”

Both teams are kicking off their 104th season. Pitt has a 70-33 record in season openers and is currently riding a 47-game home winning streak against nonconference opponents. Rhode Island is 83-20 in openers, and Baron has a 9-11 record against Big East opponents.

Dan Szramowski, Rhode Island’s director of basketball operations, said his team would be ready for the Pete’s atmosphere, since the Rams have played in some of the nation’s most hostile environments.

“The place will be packed,” Szramowski said at a news conference. “It will remind the guys who were here last year of when we went down to Virginia Tech for the NIT.”

The Rams won that game 76-64.

“Especially for the guys who were here back when we played at Duke, they know the atmosphere they are walking into,” he said. “They know the caliber of the team that we are about to play and they really know what it takes to get it done.”

The Panthers also know what it takes to get a win, but they will have to battle some injuries and missed practices if they want to keep their nonconference winning streak alive.

Center Gary McGhee missed some practices over the weekend for approved personal reasons, and Nasir Robinson will be out three to six weeks because of a knee injury. Brown is just returning from missing two weeks of practice because of  an injury.

Dixon said Brown’s lack of practice showed in the exhibition game against Indiana (Pa.).

“I decided that we really had to get 20 minutes [of playing time] out of him no matter what, and he played like a guy who hasn’t played in two weeks,” Dixon said. “But I think he looked more comfortable [Saturday]. He had a good practice.”

But battling missed practices is nothing new for Dixon.

“Every day there’s been something new,” he said. “Oftentimes, things are not within our control, with injuries and things that come up. They have lives and that is part of college basketball.”

Dixon plans on starting the same group that started Thurdsay, which means Brown, Ashton Gibbs, McGhee, Brad Wanamaker and Talib Zanna will likely tip off the season for the Panthers.

The game is part of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, a tournament which will also see Pitt host Illinois-Chicago on Wednesday before taking on Maryland at Madison Square Garden in New York Nov. 18 as part of the championship round. Then, the Panthers will play either Texas or Illinois on Nov. 19.