Men’s basketball: Panthers to play in second home tonight

By Brody Engelhard

The Pitt men’s basketball team returns to its home-away-from-home tonight.

The site is… The Pitt men’s basketball team returns to its home-away-from-home tonight.

The site is Madison Square Garden, where Pitt will tip off against Maryland today at 7 p.m. as part of the championship rounds of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer.

Madison Square Garden has been a longtime favorite of many Pitt fans and players alike. The Panthers have advanced to the Big East title game, which is held there, seven times in the last 10 years and have achieved two Big East titles. The team has a 24-11 record at the Garden since the 2000-01 season, winning 12 of their last 17 games, including an epic victory over Duke.

So far this season, the No. 5 Panthers’ (3-0) biggest strength has been their veteran backcourt composed of guards Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker. Gibbs, a junior, came in this year after enjoying a breakout season last year and has continued the success through three games so far, averaging 19.3 points with 5.3 assists in 31 minutes per contest.

His teammate, senior guard Wanamaker, has been even better than expected, averaging 19 points, six assists, two steals and more than five rebounds while playing 27 minutes per game.

But for Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon, none of this is a surprise.

“They obviously had really good years last year, both of them, and they’re better this year,” he said in the 2K Sports Classic coaches teleconference.

“I always felt all last year [Wanamaker] was overlooked and underrated. He’s a better player this year than last year. He does a lot of things for us.”

Dixon also talked about the improved play from point guard Travon Woodall. Woodall has already made an impact this year as a key reserve off the bench.

One other player that Pitt fans are starting to take notice of is true freshman J.J. Moore. Moore had his best game as a Panther last weekend against North Florida, securing 19 points in 19 minutes off the bench. But Moore is still a bit of an unproven commodity.

The leading rebounder for the Panthers is redshirt freshman Talib Zanna, and he is fast becoming an Oakland Zoo favorite.

Followed closely by Dante Taylor and then Gary McGhee, Zanna is off to a fast start in replacing junior Nasir Robinson, who has been out with an injury. As a result, Robinson might not play in tonight’s game. McGhee, a senior, leads the Panthers’ big men on the defensive end, a unit that can lock opposing offenses down.

“[The Pittsburgh Panthers] are synonymous with good defense, that continues this year,” Maryland head coach Gary Williams said.

Where Pitt shows experience, Maryland (3-0) has some inexperience and is replacing three starters from last year, including first-round draft pick Greivis Vasquez. Williams is still working on a rotation that will look to include some freshmen.

Earlier this season, Maryland barely escaped a tough game against College of Charleston, taking the lead in the last few seconds to win 75-74. College of Charleston upset UNC last year in an overtime game that ended 82-79.

Maryland is led by top scorer and sophomore forward Jordan Williams, who averages 21 points and 13.7 rebounds per game.

For Dixon, many of these Maryland players look familiar. He ran into many of them on the recruiting trail and knew then the sort of players they would become. The Panthers should be ready for their first real test of the young season. With veteran guards and a great inside-out game, the Panthers have jelled very well as a team.

“Pittsburgh is ranked where they are for a reason,” Williams said. “They have great guards, you can start right there. In college basketball, veteran guards make a difference.”

If the Panthers beat the Terrapins they will advance to play the winner of the Illinois-Texas game, scheduled for tomorrow at 7 p.m. With a loss, they will play in the consolation game, also tomorrow.