Men’s Basketball: Despite loss, Pitt surpassed expectations

By Tony Jovenitti

The analysts and experts said this team was too young.

They said this team was too… The analysts and experts said this team was too young.

They said this team was too inexperienced.

They said this Pitt men’s basketball team lost too much talent in the offseason when Levance Fields and Sam Young graduated and DeJuan Blair left for the NBA.

They said Pitt would struggle to win 10 games in Big East conference play.

They said this team would finish ninth in the conference.

And after the first half of the season, it looked like they were right. Pitt had won 10 games, but it was hardly in convincing fashion. The opening game against Wofford went down to the wire, Duquesne took the Panthers to double overtime and they struggled to score in their 47-32 win over New Hampshire. Pitt also lost to Indiana, one of the worst teams in the Big Ten this year.

And after struggling to beat DePaul in its first Big East game, Pitt needed a significant turnaround if it wanted to extend its NCAA Tournament streak from eight to nine.

Leave it to Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon to surpass expectations. His Panthers not only made it to the Tournament, they went 13-5 in Big East play and finished seven spots ahead of the projected ninth. They played hard in the Tournament and advanced to the second round, losing to Xavier 71-68.

“Some people may look at it as a surprise,” Dixon said. “I know we weren’t picked that high.”

“I told them how proud I am of them after the game and what they’ve done all year and how they battled,” he said.

One reason for the turnaround might be the fact that two of Pitt’s best players sat out for much of the first half of the season. Jermaine Dixon was injured, and Gilbert Brown was ineligible. Once they both returned to the lineup, Pitt went on one of its most successful road trips in history, defeating fifth-ranked Syracuse, as well as Cincinnati and Connecticut in three consecutive road games.

The experience of Dixon, the lone senior in the starting lineup, was useful for this Pitt team, but Brown’s contributions cannot be underestimated.

“Sitting out [at the beginning of the season], it was really tough for me,” Brown said. “It really drove me to come back and be prepared and be on top of my game when I came back so I could contribute.”

And he certainly contributed Sunday. He hit two 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds of the Xavier game to pull Pitt within three. But the season ended with Brown in the same spot where he was when it began, on the bench. He fouled out with 14 seconds left and Pitt couldn’t secure the victory with him on the bench.

The Panthers had two good chances for 3-pointers, but Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker both missed in the final five seconds. It is those kinds of situations in which experience counts. Gibbs is a sophomore, and Wanamaker is a junior who received limited playing time last season.

Dixon pointed out that Brown — a redshirt junior — has been around for four years.

“He’s the most experienced player we have on our team,” Dixon said.

Fortunately for Dixon, Brown will return next year, along with three other starters, Gibbs, Wanamaker and Gary McGhee.

Gibbs performed well in his new role as point guard after the departure of Fields. He even filled Fields’ role as late-game hero, sinking a buzzer-beating three to defeat Providence. After limited minutes last season, he contributed 16 points per game and was named the Big East’s most improved player.

Senior Jermaine Dixon is the only starter who will not be back next season.

Therefore, Pitt will likely have much higher expectations than it had coming into this season. And if Jamie Dixon’s track record is any indication, the 2010-11 Pitt men’s basketball team will likely surpass expectations.

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