Men’s basketball: Lieberman: Inexperience plagues the team, still a lot to learn

By Randy Lieberman

If anyone needed a reminder that this year’s Pitt men’s basketball team is young and… If anyone needed a reminder that this year’s Pitt men’s basketball team is young and inexperienced, its first game would do it.

Without senior Jermaine Dixon and redshirt junior Gilbert Brown, the team’s two interim leaders, juniors Gary McGhee and Brad Wanamaker, helped turn around a troubling game for Pitt by halftime.

McGhee scored on a three-point play and a putback in successive Pitt possessions during the final two and half minutes to tie and then lead the game.

Wanamaker added 15 points to help Pitt rally from a 13-point deficit to beat Wofford 63-60 Friday night.

Pitt, minus Dixon and Brown, brought no returning starters to this game against Wofford, which returned five starters.

If not for McGhee and Wanamaker — who, with Gibbs, represent the team’s veterans — little would have stood in the way of a possible opening game upset.

A pregame ceremony honoring last year’s team reminded the Panthers of this.

As the squad gazed toward the video screen during the pregame, the faces of the team’s past standouts gave their best wishes one by one.

Tyrell Biggs, Sam Young, DeJuan Blair and Levance Fields wished the Panthers (1-0) well from all corners of the globe with webcams immediately before Pitt’s Elite Eight banner glided toward the rafters.

People assumed the banner getting raised signified Pitt’s final moments of reminiscence before the new season’s start.

But after a first half during which Wofford out-rebounded Pitt 19-12 and shot 45.5 percent from the field to take a 31-24 lead, it became clear this team needed more time to play together.

“We couldn’t have drawn it up any better. This was the exact type of game we needed from our first game,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. “Our players had to do things they’ve never done before, and they got it and made plays.”

Those players didn’t answer many of the questions surrounding Pitt entering the year.

Without Blair, who will rebound? Minus Fields, who is Pitt’s point guard? Without Young’s 19.2 points per game, who will lead Pitt in scoring?

The Panthers won’t rebound the same without Blair.

McGhee had a game-high eight rebounds for the team.

“We’ve got to get our rebounding figured out. We’re not doing a good enough job,” Dixon said. “We knew that going in, and we’re going to get it addressed.”

The Panthers did address their rebounding woes to some degree.

Dixon said they worked extensively throughout the week on free-throw rebounding, which McGhee used to complete a three-point play toward the end of the game.

The Panthers also need help at the point.

It’s clear the team hasn’t found a true point guard, but it’s just as clear that the offense performed more effectively without redshirt freshman and starting point guard Travon Woodall.

Pitt didn’t score on every possession senior Chase Adams handled, but Adams did what Woodall didn’t — he passed first on almost every possession. Woodall finished with three assists and tied for the team lead, but shot just 3-of-10 from the field. Adams had two assists and took two shots, making one, a three-pointer.

Pitt will miss Fields’ clutch shooting from last year, but it can’t survive without a point guard who can set up the team’s scorers.

As for scorers, a few emerged Friday night to replace Young’s consistent output last year.

Wanamaker probably had the best seven-minute stretch in recent memory, starting in the game’s final 11 minutes.

During that stretch, Wanamaker made great plays driving to the basket and converting shots. He scored 10 of his points during that time and played solid defense to help shut down Wofford as the game continued.

Freshman Dante Taylor showed he can score, as well. He put up 13 points in 19 minutes.

The problem is, the team’s post defense suffers when he’s in the game.

But with this team, the one constant throughout the season will be improvement.

“We had a new team, most of us being out there for our first starts,” Wanamaker said. “Everybody gets nervous before a big game. This was my first start. Nerves are going to come.”

Luckily for Pitt fans, the horn blew, signaling the end of Pitt’s escape from its first game. The roof almost blew off with the collective sigh of relief in the Petersen Events Center.