2006-2007 BIG EAST PREVIEW: 1) PITTSBURGH
November 5, 2006
Over the course of the last five seasons, the Pittsburgh Panthers under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon have risen towards the top of the Big East standings. In that time, the Panthers have collected 59 conference wins (against just 21 losses) and have been in the Big East Conference Tournament Championship game four times (with one championship). Not bad for a program that in its first 19 Big East seasons had just three seasons with 10 or more conference wins (including the eight seasons that 18 league games were played) and only won more than one game once (which was in their 19th season) in the Big East Tournament previously.
Now, as the Panthers look to extend their current school record string of NCAA appearances to six straight seasons, this looks to be the best Pittsburgh team of the bunch. Last year the Panthers were one of the pleasant surprises in the conferecne, winning 10 league games and making the Big East Tournament championship game and advancing to round two of the NCAA Tournament. Many people, myself included, had Pitt pegged as a likely NIT team last year. This year, things are different, a repeat performance of last season would be termed a disappointment as the Panthers return eight of their top 9 players from last year's team.
Of course, everything has not been easy for the Pitt Panthers and coach Jamie Dixon since we last saw them on the court last March. Shortly after the season finishes, Dixon's younger sister, Army Women's coach Maggie Dixon, died suddenly from complications of an enlarged heart. The sudden tragic loss of a sibling hit Dixon hard. Pitt fans also had to wait until the last possible moment to learn of Aaron Gray's decision to return to Pittsburgh for his senior season and pass up the chance to be a 1st round draft pick. Now that they are on the verge of what is possibly the most anticipated season in the history of the program, they will have to deal with expectations that continue to mount with each preview and poll released. I think there will be many around the program very happy when they actually toss the ball in the air officially for the first time in one week.
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Even with all the success of the last several years, the Pitt program has not had a player drafted in the 1st round of the NBA draft. In fact, only Chris Taft (recently released by Golden State) has been drafted by the NBA and played in a handful of games last season. Brandin Knight, now currently the Video Coordinator of the Pitt program, also played in one NBA game, other than that, Pitt has accomplished their success with a bunch of solid players dedicated to playing defense and unselfish offense. They always seem to have several veterans that know their roles and and go about their business every time out. Although their talent has continued to increase, do not expect Pitt to waver far from the values that have made them successful under Howland and Dixon.
First of all, with Aaron Gray, voted by the Big East coaches and the conference's preseasn Player of the Year, returning, the Panthers will look to take advantage of his size and strength to force opponents to play a style they might be uncomfortable with. After backing up Chris taft and Chevon Troutman for two season, Gray burst onto the Big East scene last year averaging nearly 16 PPG and 11 rebounds in conference play and being voted to the 1st team all-league. Gray is as close to an unmoveable object in the past as their is in this league and uses that positioning to dominate the boards and score inside. He has a face-up game that will also surprise you as he is a solid shooter and passer for a big man. Where Gray needs to improve is not so much on the physical aspect, but on the mental aspect of believing in himself and be more aggressive. At times he would, despite being over 7-foot tall and a solid 270 lbs, be looking over his shoulder for a defender and miss some easy shots. If he just worries about putting the ball in the basket in close, he will be very effecient inside. Even though he led the conference in FG%, shooting 56% in conference games (including a 7-24 stretch against SU and Marquette), it always seemed like he was missing too many shots, which is also a credit to his ability to establish outstanding position inside.
One question mark for the Panthers this season is how will they replace Carl Krauser. One thing you can count on is team's looking to double on Aaron Gray and see who else on Pitt can beat them. With Krauser last year, teams were first concentrating on him and them Gray blossomed seemingly out of nowhere. However, with a closer look, Krauser's performance last year in Big East play was not very consistent as he averaged around 13 PPG and shot less than 37% from the floor. With the addition of East Carolina transfer Mike Cook as well as another season of development for junior Ronald Ramon and sophomore Levance Fields, Pittsburgh should have those offensive needs covered. Krauser's toughness and leadership are traits that might be missed more, especially in the tough environments throughout the Big East.
Cook is a player to watch here. The powerful 6'4, 220 lb guard/forward from Philadelphia averaged 15 PPG as a sophomore at ECU in Conference-USA, playing against Louisville, Marquette, DePaul, etc. As a freshman he played all three perimeter positions, even starting the last dozen games as a PG, and averaged 11 PPG. Cook is not a great jump shooter, but has a knack for getting to the basket and finishing in a variety of ways. He is a physical player that will rebound and play with intensity from start to finish. The SF/3rd guard position at Pitt has been a position that has not been filled consistently for a couple years, it looks like Cook could be the man to solve that.
The rest of the backcourt is solid, with some potential to do more. Ramon is a 6' junior who led the Big East is 3-pt shooting last season, shooting over 50% in conference play. If teams look to double or collapse on Gray, Ramon is quite a weapon with his sweet shot from beyond the arc. He also is a steady ballhandler at the PG position and added 9.5 PPG in conference play last year. Fields is a NYC native and has that air of confidence with his game. Built like a bulldog, Fields seemingly has no fear and as evidenced by his play last year in the post-season, Fields could be ready for quite a breakout this season. In the six post-season games, Fields averaged over 10 PPG and 26 minutes a contest (including 18 pts against Bradley in the NCAA's). Also in the mix is senior Antonio Graves, another who began to shine late in the season last year with strong play in the conference tournament. Additional confidence from that success and assuming a role as a senior leader seems to have Graves in the best shape of his career and playing very well this preseason. The 6'3 senior always seemed to have to skills, but just could not put it together. If he can for his senior season, it would be another weapon for the Panthers, who always seem to find one when needed.
Completing their depth, and they are DEEP, at the wing is junior Keith Benjamin and freshman Gilbert Brown. Both players are exciting athletes that will try to fit their open court games into the slower Pitt style. Benjamin had some big games last year during the conference season, but struggled in the post-season and then missed the NCAA's after falling ill. Brown is a 6'6 wing that is as athletic as they come. He is still working on his skill set, but his athletic ability can impact any game. He has also been slowed with a bout of mono this preseason.
Along with Georgetown, Pitt has one of the best frontcourts in the conference and the nation. Teaming with Gray in the starting line-up is 6'10 senior Levon Kendall, the Canadian National team star. Kendall is probably best known for his 40-pt performance in the U-21 World Championships that led Canada to a stunning upset of the USA and a bronze medal. At Pitt, Kendall is not asked to score much, but he does everything else the staff asks for, including rebound, defend, set screens and pass. He has a real nice looking shot out to 18 feet and is undervalued for his versatility. Pitt might look for him to score more this year.
Another player to watch this season is sophomore Tyrell Biggs, a 6'8 forward who has dropped 30 pounds in the offseason. This skilled big man has some added muscle to compete inside and has a nice shooting touch from the outside. It might be another year before he gets a prominent role, but there are several Big East teams that he'd look pretty good as a starting forward for. Also adding depth in the frontcourt is senior Doyle Hudson and freshman Austin Wallace. Both players are about 6'8 and are good looking athletes, but raw. Wallace is likely a redshirt candidate and Hudson might be more of an emergency relief player in the post, although he can definitely hold his own, it just is that Pitt has many other options in front of him.
The final player on the Pitt roster is also a very important part of their potential success this season. Sophomore Sam Young is a 6'6 jumping jack that was a member of the 1st team all-conference freshmen team last year. Several coaches and publications have gone out of their way to project a big season from Young, who can play either forward position. I think Yougn is still a year away from his breakout, but he adds another element to the Pitt program of playing above the rim and working hard from start to finish. It will be interesting to see if he has fine-tuned his skills offensively and defensively on the perimeter to play the small forward position, but his power and athleticism makes him a threat at the 4-position. I expect him to get more time at the SF spot this year, with Mike Cook, to allow Pitt to get Tyrell Biggs on the floor, too. If Young breaks out, he could be a big key to helping the Panther make that elusive NCAA run this season.
There is no doubt that television loves the Panthers this year. The drew Georgetown, Marquette and West Virginia as their home and home match-ups and I do not think any team will be seen more on ESPN this year than the Panthers. They have also been in-demand in the OOC schedule and have greatly beefed up that portion of their schedule, so be ready to see a lot of Pitt this season. We will learn alot about Pitt in theri first six conference games which includes trips to Syracuse and DePaul along with hoem dates with Connecticut, Georgetown and Marquette. From there, things even out much more, but that is a tough stretch off the bat. If any team will be ready for that early on it is the experience laden Panthers.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Pittsburgh Panthers are going to be very good this year. There is probably no team in the Big East that looks to be as set from the get go as Pitt. They return a lot of experience and players seem to already have defined roles and positions heading into the season. There is not a lot of questions outside of replacing some of the intangibles that Carl Krauser brought to the team. There are a few teams in the conference that have more potential upside, but nobody seems to be as ready as Pitt this year. They should be the strongest team throughout the conference season and players like Mike Cook, Sam Young and Levance Fields also add an element of potential to their mix that makes you beleive they also have a higher level they can kick it into. You know what your going to get with Aaron Gray, Levon Kendall and some of the others, and that is a very good team, we will see if they have that extra gear for when they need it in March and, hopefully for Pitt, in April.
Projected Big East record: 12-4