Pitt basketball preview: Players might change, but wins keep coming
Sunday, October 11, 2009
By Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

One could make the argument that the 2008-09 season was the greatest in Pitt's 103-year men's basketball history. The Panthers tied a school record with 31 victories and advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time in 35 years.

They also reached No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time, defeated a No. 1-ranked team for the first time and set a school mark with a 15-3 record in Big East play.

If that was not enough to live up to for the 2009-10 edition of the Panthers there is this:

Pitt is the only Big East team to win at least 20 games overall and 10 Big East contests each of the past eight seasons.

Pitt owns a Big East-best 96-36 record in that span.

Pitt is the only team from the Big East to make the NCAA tournament eight consecutive years.

Pitt is one of only eight teams in Division I with a streak of eight or more consecutive NCAA appearances, an accomplishment that is put into sharper focus when one considers that North Carolina, Kentucky and Connecticut are not on the list.

With four starters gone, two important players injured or suspended and half the roster composed of true or redshirt freshmen, Pitt's impressive NCAA streak and its place among the nation's elite programs are in jeopardy this season.

"We've been winning, and we definitely want to keep that tradition up," said senior shooting guard Jermaine Dixon, the only returning starter. He is rehabilitating an injured foot and cannot yet practice with the team. "Nothing has changed. We lost our top four players, but nothing has changed. We all know we can play. We were recruited here to play. We still want to win the Big East regular season, the Big East tournament and the national championship. Those are still our top three goals."

Extending the NCAA tournament streak to nine years will not be easy for the Panthers. When they gather for their first practice Friday at the Petersen Events Center, there will be just two players, other than Dixon, who averaged more than 10 minutes per game last season. A third, redshirt junior Gilbert Brown, will not be there because he is serving an academic suspension until Dec. 20.

This is by far the most inexperienced team Jamie Dixon has coached in his seven seasons as head coach. At least two, and many times three players, returned to each of Dixon's previous teams.

And people are taking notice. The Panthers are not ranked in any of the preseason polls, and one magazine picked them to finish 11th in the Big East.

"I don't know if two starters or one starter [returning] changes your life," the coach said. "I know what it looks like on paper, but it doesn't change what we do.

"We've been young before. We've had this discussion before, and we've had guys step up and surprise and take that step. We need that this year. That's what programs are about. We've been able to do it. This year, we need guys to improve and get better."

The freshman expected to make the biggest impact is Dante Taylor, a 6-foot-11 McDonald's All-American who can play center and power forward. He is a candidate to earn a starting job. Other freshmen who could see significant playing time include power forwards J.J. Richardson and Talib Zanna and small forward Lamar Patterson, plus redshirt freshmen point guard Travon Woodall and power forward Dwight Miller.

"In that locker room, we know what everyone can do," said sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs, the Panthers' top returning shooter and a candidate to start at point guard.

"We know everyone's ability. We're confident going into the season that everyone will jell together and have the right chemistry. We'll be a team that will do some damage in the Big East and even the NCAA tournament if we get that chance."

The only other season in the past eight when Pitt started the season unranked was 2005-06. That team -- led by senior point guard Carl Krauser and junior center Aaron Gray -- turned out to be one of the surprise teams in the country. It won its first 15 games, advanced to the Big East title game and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Whether this team can come close to achieving that kind of success is open to debate, but Gibbs believes the Panthers will be a team to reckon with.

"Usually there are a couple of teams that surprise every year," Gibbs said. "I think we have a chance to do that. A lot of people aren't picking us to be one of the top teams in the Big East or the country. But we're going to be ready. We're going to surprise a lot of people because we have a talented group, especially the freshmen.

"They're tough and aggressive and they're not going to back down from anybody."