Men’s basketball: Even with key losses, Panthers still focused on winning

By Kelly Flanigan

This was it: the Elite Eight of March Madness. Finally, the Panthers were shattering critics’ banter about Pitt’s inability to make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.

But on March 28, the Villanova Wildcats defeated the No. 1-seeded Panthers, 78-76, in the final seconds of the game. This heart-wrenching loss to Big East foe Villanova ended the 2008-09 season for Coach Jamie Dixon’s Panthers — who went 31-5 in the regular season and suffered only three losses in conference play. The Panthers were undefeated at home last season.

No doubt about it, expectations for last season were at an all-time high. With superstars like DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields now in the NBA, fans hope that new veteran players and freshmen alike will make a huge impact this season.

“We’re a little younger than we have been,” Dixon said. “But you’re only as experienced as you behave. I have seen freshmen act like seniors and seniors act like freshmen.”

The Pitt men’s basketball team has sold out 125 consecutive games. They have currently won 20 games or more in eight consecutive seasons.

Four freshmen look to make significant contributions to this Panthers’ season. Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna, J.J. Richardson and Lamar Patterson will be the highlight of Dixon’s recruiting class this year, which ranks among the top-25 in the nation.

Taylor, a 6-foot-9 forward, is Pitt’s first McDonald’s All-American recruit since the late-1980s. He is a definite contender to replace Blair, who turned pro following his sophomore season.

Taylor chose Pitt over fellow Big East competitors, Connecticut and Villanova, and long-time basketball powerhouses Florida, Maryland, Kansas and Memphis.

Zanna, another 6-foott-9 power forward from Maryland, came to the United States from Nigeria four years ago to pursue a career in basketball. An aggressive rebounder and accurate mid-range jump shooter, Zanna also excels in shot-blocking on the defensive end and shows definite ability to post-up opponents.

Patterson is a 6-foot-5 small forward and guard who has excellent court vision, great ball-handling skills and good body control to aggressively attack the rim. The New Jersey native’s size is comparable to an NBA-type body build, and his specialty is playing around the perimeter.

Richardson is a forward from Texas and is known for his ferocious play in the paint. The 6-foot-7 Richardson possesses athleticism and speed for his size.

But newcomers won’t be the only players on the court. The Panthers return many veterans, as well.

Brad Wanamaker, Nasir Robinson, Ashton Gibbs and Gary McGhee will look to step up. Redshirt freshman Travon Woodall will be called upon in the absence of Pitt’s only returning starter Jermaine Dixon, who broke his foot over the summer.

Redshirt junior Gilbert Brown has been suspended for academic reasons. He is expected to return before Big East play begins but will miss 11 games of the season.

Two-year team manager Nick Rivers will put on a jersey this season as a walk-on. Fans may recall Rivers dancing in the middle of Pitt’s pre-game circle to pump up the rest of the team.

As the Panthers prepare to begin the new season, fans anxiously wait to see the new freshmen and hope that Pitt will appear in the NCAA Tournament for its ninth consecutive year.