PITTSBURGH SEASON PREVIEW
For Pittsburgh Panther fans, this year is going to be a little different. The last two or three years, you would have been hard-pressed to find a team on national television more often than Pitt. This year, they find themselves out of the Big East limelight and only with four nationally televised contests scheduled.
The main reason is because they have fallen slightly off of the national radar a bit. Last year they were a very respectable 10-6 in the Big East, but a one game appearance in the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament has taken some of the luster off the perception of one of the country's fastest rising programs. Add in graduation losses of Chevon Troutman and Mark McCarroll and Chris Taft opting for the NBA draft rather than return to school for his junior year, and, expectations are going to be down just a bit.
However, that is not to indicate that the sun is setting on the Pittsburgh program and Jamie Dixon. If you look back historically at programs that rose to power in the Big East, there is no straight shot to the top. At this time, everyone strives to be like Syracuse and Connecticut, but there have been many early NCAA exits and trips to the NIT for these programs even after raising their national reputation to the status of the nation's best. Traditional powers have seen tough times ensue when replacing coaches. Pitt is bringing in a talented group of newcomers and have some holdovers that might be getitng overlooked a little, but have shown the ability to compete at high levels. All this with a sterling on-campus arena, the Peterson Events Center, and the Pitt program, although in a criticial stage, still has plenty of upside left, in our opinion.
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Through much of last spring and into this summer, it looked like a definite rebuilding season for the Panthers with the loss of Taft, McCarroll and Troutman and the anticipated loss of PG Carl Krauser to the professional ranks. However, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon got some good news when Krauser decided to pass on professional opportunities and return to run the show for the Panthers. Krauser is a tough and physical point guard that rebounds, gets assists and can score. He comes from the playgrounds of NYC and certainly has the flair of the streets in his game and his passion for the game is obvious. Finding a balance of where the streets meet the college game is also very important, because, on occassion, Krauser can be careless with the ball and get into a habit of over-dribbling. Last year, in wins over Notre Dame and Syracuse in a 3-day span, he showed how clutch he could be with key shots. He is a player that has been through the battles in this conference and will likely lead the way again for the Panthers, his late game experience should be very valuable for a team that will likely be in many close contests, but, in the same sense, he needs to cut his turnovers significantly, or they will hurt him in those same close games!
Krauser's experience will definitely soften the blow of losing Taft, McCarroll and Troutman who logged nearly all the numbers in the front court the last two seasons. Waiting behind them were (now) juniors Levon Kendall and Aaron Gray. Despite neither getting much of a chance to get extended time in the past, both have shown they have some big game ability. Levon Kendall, as everyone probably knows by now, starred on the Canadian U-21 bronze-medal winning World Championship team. His 40-pt performance against Rudy Gay, Allan Ray, Terrence Roberts and the rest of team USA in the championships shows that this Canadian import has a little more to his game than some might be giving him credit for. Add in BIG Aaron Gray (all 7'0 275 lbs), who showed his potential with a 15 pt performance against Villanova last year and key contributions in wins over Connecticut, Syracuse and Notre Dame and the Pitt situation, post Taft and Troutman, probably isn't as dire as some might believe.
The biggest weakness the Panthers had last season (besides inconsistent play and questionable chemistry) was on the wings. The began the season with Yuri Demetris starting at the SF spot, but he was dismissed from the team early in to the Big East season. After that, it was a revolving door at the wing and Pitt never seemed to get anything there offensively or defensively. This year, they are hoping freshmen recruit Sam Young can be an important factor in curing this problem. Young is an athletic specimen that will play hard from baseline to baseline. JUCO John DeGroat, now a senior, was a dissapointment last year in filling the wing vacancy, but a year of familiarity in the system could help.
In the backcourt, with Krauser, there are also several options to make an impact. Antonio Graves, a junior, got the majority of the action last season and he returns after averaging over 7 PPG and shooting a crisp 44% from beyond the arc. Sophomore Ronald Ramon also returns after earning a spot on the conference's all-rookie team with a 7 PPG average. Ramon (shoulder) and Graves (ankle) both were sidetracked with some nagging injuries that cut into their production for extended periods of time. A key player is sophomore guard Keith Benjamin who showed some brief signs of being a contributor, but ankle and knee injuries kept him off the practice court and behind Ramon and Graves. Benjamin is an explosive athlete that can defend and slash to the hoop. He could also get time at the SF position if need be. The key is for the Panthers is to get one of these players to take a big step forward this season.
There are three other newcomers to the Panther mix this season and each could play an important role in the team's success. 6'8 250 lb freshmen Tyrell Biggs will be a key player in the front court. The Panther staff have raved about Biggs commitment to getting in shape this season and beleive the newfound dedication will take his play to another level. He could find minutes available at the PF position backing up Levon Kendall or playing with Kendall if he is the main back-up to Aaron Gray. Doyle Hudson, a 6'8 athletic F/C is a JUCO addition, originally from the Bahamas, that will be in the mix for playing time as well. More of an athletic big man, Hudson offers a little something different than the other Panther big men. Sam Young could also play some in the front court, although just 6'6, he is a tenacious rebounder and can use his strength and athletic ability to help in the paint if need be. The final member of the recruiting class is 5'10 PG Levance Fields from NYC. Fields probably will see limited minutes due to the fact that Krauser is one of the game's ironmen, but Fields could play a larger role if one of the wing guard candidates do not emerge in taking over the position and Fields and Krauser could see some court time together. It is more likely that Fields will spend the season learning the intricacies of the system that Jamie Dixon will be utilizing for the future and Fields will be the one to run it after Krauser graduates.
The last couple seasons, Pittsburgh has had to play Connecticut, Syracuse and Notre Dame twice and last year also met West Virginia two times and had road match-ups with Boston College and Villanova comprising of 10 of their 16 Big East games. This year, things are a little lighter for the Panthers as WVU is the only team of that group they will face twice and they miss out on Villanova entirely. They also face DePaul and Providence as their other mirror games and have a home schedule that should set them up for a pretty good conference record.
This is an interesting Pittsburgh team. Carl Krauser returns to run the point and there are plenty of candidates to emerge at the shooting guard and small forward spots that should give them more than they got last year. It will be difficult to replace Chevy Troutman and Chris Taft, but the drop-off from them to Levon Kendall, Aaron Gray, Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs might not be as drastic as some anticipate. There are questions about this team, but with just two seniors, there is some youthful upside that could surprise, in any event, it is a good starting point for the Panthers to regroup and try to get back near the top of the conferene.
Projected Big East record: 9-7