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,
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
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
“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.