Basketball Preview: Men’s team has high hopes for 2010-11

By Lauren Kirschman

The Pitt men’s basketball team wasn’t supposed to achieve as much as it did last… The Pitt men’s basketball team wasn’t supposed to achieve as much as it did last season.

After losing Levance Fields, Sam Young, DeJuan Blair and Tyrell Biggs — and with them, 66 percent of the points scored in the 2008-09 season — the Panthers were supposed to struggle.

They were supposed to finish ninth in the Big East Conference, at least according to the coaches in the preseason poll. They definitely weren’t supposed to make the NCAA Tournament.

But Pitt thrives on being the underdog: the overlooked and unexpected. The Panthers finished tied for second in the Big East, with a 25-9 (13-5 Big East) overall record and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

But this season, the Panthers won’t be the underdogs.

They won’t be overlooked and none of their wins will be unexpected. That’s because this season the Panthers return the core of their team, including four starters and 86 percent of the scoring.

The Big East coaches picked Pitt to finish first in the Big East, and it was tabbed as the No. 5 team in the country in the AP preseason poll.

Pitt senior Brad Wanamaker said the returning experience should work in Pitt’s advantage.

“It’s a great thing,” Wanamaker said. “Last year we had a whole season where we played together, where we got to learn where to find each other on the court and know where each other is comfortable on the court.”

“It’s the same unit besides one player [Jermaine Dixon],” senior center Gary McGhee said. “It feels good to have the same group back, the same feel. We’re getting ready to play a tough season.”

Wanamaker is one of four returning starters for the Panthers. Their leading scorer (Ashton Gibbs), leading rebounder (McGhee) and Nasir Robinson also return, althought Robinson will miss the first set of games due to an injury.

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon marveled at how the Panthers were considered one of the league’s youngest teams only last season but are now suddenly considered one of the most experienced.

“We have returning guys, and I think that’s what sticks out,” Dixon said. “Especially compared to last year when we had no returning starters when we started the year with Jermaine out. I like this group, there’s no question.”

Dixon said he thinks the Panthers’ high ranking entering the season is a testament to the success they’ve enjoyed over the past nine years. So far, he said he likes how his players have handled the expectations.

“It’s a good balance [between young and experienced players],” he said. “We have three very good seniors that played a lot of minutes so I think that’s going to be a big help.”

Junior guard Ashton Gibbs led the Panthers in scoring last season and was named the Big East Most Improved Player. He scored 15.7 points per game and dished out 1.8 assists. He was one of the conference’s biggest surprises, filling in for former star point guard Fields.

But Gibbs knows there is more to the team than just him. He said this team could be reminiscent of the Pitt squad that advanced to the Elite Eight in 2009.

“We might be even more deep than the Elite Eight team,” he said. “We’re a good team, we have a lot of great players. That’s only going to help us throughout the season. We have high expectations, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Wanamaker averaged 12.3 points per game last season and filled the box score by adding 5.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. He is also one of the most versatile players in the country.

The number of veterans on the squad will help the Panthers thrive this season, he said, and their summer trip to Ireland only helped them bond more and come together as a team.

Pitt spent 12 days in Ireland this summer competing in six games. The Panthers also received the added benefit of 10 practices.

“We’re a very experienced team,” Gibbs said. “It’s going to work to our advantage.”

Robinson averaged 6.6 points and 5.6 rebounds last season as a starter, but he’ll miss the first three to six weeks of the season because of a knee surgery.

Gilbert Brown also returns for his senior season after missing much of the nonconference season last year because of an academic suspension. But Brown ended the season as Pitt’s second leading scorer with 10.7 points per game and second leading rebounder with 5.7 rebounds per game.

Dixon said it’s been a career-long struggle for Brown between injuries and the suspension. Brown only missed one practice over the summer in July, but suffered a slight hamstring injury before the Blue-Gold scrimmage.

“I thought he played really well in Ireland,” Dixon said. “He shot the ball well. He’s really trying to do things right and lead. We really challenge him on the defensive end, and I think that’s where he can make a statement.”

The chemistry the Panthers built last season will help them on the court this year, McGhee said, because they learned each other’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.

“We know when we pass somebody the ball, what they can do with the ball and what they’re going to do,” McGhee said. “That’s really good to have down the road.”

Wanamaker agreed, adding that this season, the Panthers know how to say things to their teammates and how to take advice as well.

Gibbs said the team feels different entering this season than last season because of the veteran players that will return to the floor. But he added that it’s important for Pitt to keep the underdog mentality it used as motivation last season.

“We have to keep fighting, especially in practice,” he said. “We have to keep working hard.”

Gibbs said the coaches have done an excellent job in practice pushing the team to the limit. It’s up to the team to carry that mental toughness over to the games, he said, and if the Panthers keep building their chemistry, they’ll be fine.

The Panthers also return contributors Travon Woodall, who averaged five points last season as the backup point guard, sophomore Dante Taylor who contributed 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds as a freshman and J.J. Richardson who provided a spark off the bench.

With the return of the nucleus of players comes a demand for leadership, Wanamaker said.

“We’re all leaders in our own way,” he said. “Whether it’s talking or being leaders on the court or just doing extra work before or after practice. So we all, in our mindset, have a different way of leading.”

Throw in players like freshman J.J. Moore, who looks like he can play and contribute right away, and redshirt freshman Talib Zanna, who scored 13 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the team’s first exhibition game, the team has serious potential.

But Gibbs and the Panthers know that nobody is going to hand them a trophy this season.

“Nobody is going to back down to us,” he said. “[The Big East] is the best conference in the country. Each and every game is going to be a hard-fought game and with the experience we have, everybody is going to try and come at us really hard with their best punches.”