No Pitt season starts without high expectations

The seasons change, the players change. What doesn’t change with

Pitt basketball are the expectations.

Win around 25 games. Finish high in the Big East Conference

standings. Advance deep into the Big East tournament. Try to

stretch March into April.

No Panthers team has made it past the NCAA round of eight. Every

other criteria on Pitt’s preseason check list has been accomplished

multiple times during the last 10 years, and every one appears to

be reachable this season.

Including that dash into April.

With four starters and seven of eight players back from a team

that had a surprising 25-9 record last season and reached the

second round of the NCAA Tournament, this could be the deepest of

coach Jamie Dixon’s eight teams. It might not be the best – no

player appears to be as dominating as DeJuan Blair or Sam Young,

both of whom left after the 2008-09 season – but there are outside

shooters, playmakers, rebounders and defenders.

The Panthers haven’t always had multiple players in all four

categories even while running up records such as 31-5 in 2008-09

and 2003-05, 29-8 in 2006-07, 28-5 in 2002-03, 27-10 in 2007-08,

25-8 in 2005-06.

They do now.

”I’ve never been on a more athletic team,” said Gary McGhee,

the 6-foot-11 senior center who averaged nearly 7 points and 7

rebounds last season. ”Everyone on this team can dunk, and you

couldn’t say that before with us.”

The main challenge for a team that won 25 games last season –

when a 20-win season was expected to be beyond reach – is to prove

it can match or exceed predictions when a Top 10-caliber team is

expected.

”People didn’t think much about us last year, and we finished

second in the Big East. So they know what we’re capable of now, and

that’s why we’re picked so high this year,” forward Gilbert Brown

said. ”But that doesn’t change anything. We have high expectations

and want to show what we can do on the court.”

They’ve already had more time on the court than most teams.

While the Panthers officially opened preseason workouts Friday,

they had 10 practice days this summer and played six games in

Ireland. Dixon took advantage of the extra time to make a few

lineup shifts and to indoctrinate 6-foot-6 freshman J.J. Moore and

6-4 freshman Cameron Wright into a system that demands a commitment

to defense.

The 6-6 Brown (10.7 points), who shared time at power forward

last season, shifts to power forward to replace the team’s former

top defender, Jermaine Dixon, the lone departed regular. Gary

McGhee, a 6-11 senior, and 6-9 sophomore Dante Taylor will share

time at the post, with 6-5 Nasir Robinson, 6-9 Talib Zanna and 6-7

J.J. Richardson at power forward. Brad Wanamaker, a 6-4 senior,

will be the primary shooting guard, with leading returning scorer

Ashton Gibbs (15.7 points) and 5-11 Travon Woodall at the

point.

For much of last season, the 6-2 Gibbs showed he could handle

the dual responsibility of running the offense while also being the

primary outside shooter. He wore down a bit toward the end of the

season, so his offseason emphasis was on getting stronger and

finding more ways to score other than with his outside jumper.

”I worked mainly on my strength and conditioning,” he said.

”I wanted to get stronger to survive in the Big East, and it

helped my quickness, too. My playmaking skills were something I

worked on as well.”

Moore, who could get considerable playing time at small forward,

and Wright should provide immediate help. Last season, only Woodall

(5.0 points per game) and Taylor (4.1 points, 3.7 rebounds) played

much among the freshmen.

Another goal is to keep winning close games; Pitt lost only

twice in games decided by four points or fewer, including a

season-ending 71-68 loss to Xavier in the NCAA tournament. The

Panthers beat Providence on a 40-foot shot by Gibbs and rallied

from seven down with 45 seconds to play to beat West Virginia and

five down with less than a minute left to beat Louisville.

Not only did Pitt gain experience from its Irish trip, it has

the advantage of opening its season a few days earlier than most

teams because it will take part in the 2K Sports Classic. Pitt will

have played five games by Nov. 19, the same date it opened its

season five years ago.

”We still have an attitude like we’re the underdogs,” Gibbs

said. ”That keeps us working hard. You need that to survive in the

Big East.”