Albany (NY)-Pittsburgh Preview

Ashton Gibbs isn’t trying to be insensitive to his younger

Pittsburgh teammates, but the senior guard really doesn’t care all

that much what conference the Panthers play in next year.

Big East? ACC? To Gibbs, it doesn’t matter. He’ll be long


“I want us to do well wherever we are,” Gibbs said. “But I

can’t control it. All I know is my goal this year is to win the Big

East. That’s what we do here.”

Few teams have done it better in the Big East than the

10th-ranked Panthers, who won the regular season title last winter

and have been to the conference tournament championship game on

seven occasions in the past decade.

Whether the Panthers (28-6) have to wait until 2014 to move to

the ACC or are allowed to make the switch sooner, Gibbs knows the

school’s legacy in the Big East is certain.

He’s just hoping to pen one more successful chapter.

Pitt, which opens the season Friday night against visiting

Albany, certainly has the tools even with a young roster littered

with 10 underclassmen. Coach Jamie Dixon gives credit to Gibbs, who

flirted with going to the NBA last spring before opting to return

for his senior season.

Gibbs heard his stock wasn’t quite high enough to make the leap,

and to be honest he felt like there was some unfinished


For all the success the Panthers have from November through

early March, something happens in the NCAA tournament. Typically,

something bad.

Pitt is still searching for its first Final Four berth. Last

year’s NCAA tournament run ended on the first weekend of March

Madness when the top-seeded Panthers lost to Butler in the third


It took Gibbs months to get over it, and to be honest, he’s

still not quite sure he’s moved on.

“You think about what happened, how we let things get away from

us, how we got away from the things that have made us so

successful,” Gibbs said.

The disciplined play that has been the hallmark of Dixon’s

tenure was replaced by a staggering gaffe by forward Nasir

Robinson, who fouled Butler’s Matt Howard 80 feet from the basket

with less than a second left.

Robinson prefers to leave the mistake in the past.

“I’ve still got time and another chance,” said Robinson, who

had surgery Oct. 14 to repair a torn right meniscus but returned

for Monday’s 76-67 exhibition win over Kentucky Wesleyan and had

six points and four rebounds.

The Panthers will finally try to break through the way they

always have, with the kind of hard-nosed defense that’s made them

one of the most intimidating programs in the country.

Yet center Gary McGhee and guards Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert

Brown are all gone. It will be up to youngsters like freshman

forward Khem Birch to help provide the kind of toughness required

to navigate the deepest – at least at the moment – conference in

the country.

Though Gibbs is just 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, he’s taking it

upon himself to take a leadership role at both ends of the


It’s a pleasant surprise for Dixon, who challenged Gibbs – who

averaged 16.8 points a game last season – to focus on his defense

in the offseason.

“We were good (on defense) last year,” Dixon said. “Our numbers

were good, one of the best in the country, but I think we can get

better. We have experience in that area. So we were at a point, but

we can reach for a higher point.”

Gibbs agrees. He’s been around the program long enough to know

what’s expected from team leaders. Just in case he needed extra

motivation, former Connecticut star Kemba Walker provided the

blueprint of how far a team can go if it’s led the right way.

“I’m not saying I’m Kemba, he’s a great player,” Gibbs said.

”But you see us in similar situations. He was on a young team and

this is a young team. I know we’ve got talented guys and I know we

can be great.”

It will be up to Gibbs to provide the spark. Though there’s

little doubt he’ll be the player Dixon turns to when things get

tight late, he’ll also attempt to become more of a facilitator for

his teammates.

“For Ashton, from his junior to senior year, I think he’s going

to take another step forward,” Dixon said. “He’s been a good

defender, but we think he can play even better. We’ve asked a lot

of him, and he can’t do it all. But he does a lot.”

Dixon is optimistic the rest of the Panthers can do the rest.

There are high expectations of Birch, just the sixth McDonald’s

All-American to sign with Pitt. Yet freshmen rarely thrive under

Dixon, in part because of the time it takes for a player to learn

how to deal with the rigors of playing defense in the most rugged

conference in the country.

However, the 6-foot-9 Canadian has impressed his teammates with

his tenacity. The Panthers make sure to hit Birch and hit him hard

whenever he takes it to the rim. Though he’s been knocked down

several times, he keeps getting back up.

“They just tell me whenever I think I’m taking it hard enough,

to just take it harder,” Birch said. “You’ve just got to push

yourself. It’s the only way to get it done here.”

The Great Danes (16-16) were picked to finish fourth in the

America East preseason coaches’ poll after going 9-7 – tied for

third in the league – in 2010-11. Albany lost leading scorer Tim

Ambrose (16.6 points per game), but returns four other starters,

including the junior backcourt tandem of Logan Aronhalt (14.6 ppg)

and Mike Black (12.3).

Pitt, looking for its 58th straight home victory over a

non-conference opponent, won the only meeting 83-54 at the Petersen

Events Center on Nov. 28, 2003.