2007-2008 BIG EAST PREVIEW: 5) PITTSBURGH
October 21, 2007
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Jamie Dixon enters his fifth season as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Panthers. There have not been too many coaches in the history of college basketball that have gotten off to a better start in their coaching careers than Dixon. The soon-to-be 42 year old has a 105-30 (.778) career record at Pitt and a 45-19 (.703) record in Big East regular season contests. Those numbers make coach Dixon the 4th winningest active coach in the county (by winning %) and the Big East’s All-Time winningest coach by percentage. On top of that, he has the 2nd most wins All-Time of any coach after four seasons, trailing only Everett Case of North Carolina State.
Jamie Dixon has carried over the success that Ben Howland began at Pitt in his four years. The Panthers have the longest active streak in the conference with six consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. They have also been to the Big East Tournament Finals in six of the last seven years and four of the programs five appearances in the Sweet 16 have occurred in this timeframe. Of course, now the question becomes once again, can Jamie Dixon and Pittsburgh get past the Sweet 16 ceiling?
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One thing you can count on is that Pittsburgh will take good players and have very good success with them. Last year’s departing seniors make room for the next wave of players to take their turn. Levon Kendall, Aaron Gray and Antonio Graves were not on any Top 100 recruiting lists coming out of high school, but they were the catalysts and starters on a very successful team. Now, the program has started to recruit and attract very good players and we will see if Jamie Dixon and the Panthers can take it up another notch. This year’s Panthers are a mixed bread of players with exciting upside and the same veteran flavor that we have gotten used to. It seems in the past, Pittsburgh has reached a ceiling of their abilities as others sprinted past them later in the year. This year, Pittsburgh could be a team hitting their stride later in the year, as opposed to right out of the gates.
THE 2006-2007 SEASON:
Pittsburgh was pretty much as expected last year. They started out strong, as anticipated with three seniors and a 4th-year junior in the starting line-up and were consistently a top 10 team throughout the season. Like clockwork, they went 12-4 in the Big East and advanced to the Big East Tournament Final with wins over Marquette and Louisville and the sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament. However, it never seemed like Pitt was able to kick it up a notch and put it in another gear, a common short-coming of previous Panther squads that have limited their program in getting over the perceived hump. With all their regular season success, there always seems to be another team ready to take it up a level in the Big East (Syracuse, UConn previously) and last year was no different when Georgetown handled Pitt easily in the BET championship game and went to the Final Four while Pitt fell to former boss Ben Howland and his UCLA Bruins.
The Panthers were led last year by all-league center Aaron Gray, who was selected in the 2nd round of the NBA draft last summer. The program’s first true 7-footer was slowed by a nagging ankle injury down the stretch which limited his already limited mobility even more. Gray was a trooper and always gave a maximum effort, but his physical limitations sometimes frustrated Panther fans. Another player who battled nagging injuries was Sam Young. In the preseason, many coaches around the league were talking about Young having the potential to explode during the season. However, the high-flyer never took off as painful tendonitis limited his effectiveness early on and he often looked dis-interested on the court. With his numbers dropping his sophomore year, Pitt lost that upside potential to help the solid core they had in place. Veterans Ron Ramon, Levon Kendall and Antonio Graves had solid seasons and first year starter Levance Fields showed promise as the starting point guard, following in the steps of Brandin Knight and Carl Krauser. ECU transfer Mike Cook started every game and after a mid-season slump, played well towards the end of the season, giving hope for a better 2007-2008 from him.
Pittsburgh’s trademark experience will be evident in the backcourt that will feature two seniors and a junior among the four-man guard rotation and another senior starting on the wing. Junior Levance Fields will return as a 2nd-year starter at the point guard position. Fields found his career at Pittsburgh in-doubt after a September disturbance outside a Pittsburgh nightclub which he was subdued by a club security guard with a taser. Fields, assuming he does not run afoul with the law again the next nine months, will have all the charges dropped from the incident. The Panthers and Fields are working on moving on from the incident and Fields comes into this year approximately 20 pounds lighter than the weight he played at last season and has been noticeably quicker on the floor. This should be a key for him, especially on the defensive end of the floor, as he will be battling a very good point guard each night. Fields in NYC tough and has that NYC-flair that allows him to find a way to score or make the big play. Assuming he can concentrate on everything on the court and keep distractions off the court to a minimum, Fields could be poised for a big season.
Fields will get help from a pair of NYC-area seniors, Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin in the backcourt. Ramon is one of the most experienced combo guards in the league. He also has battled nagging injuries each year, but he combines a tremendous basketball IQ and a deadly outside shooting touch to consistently perform in the Big East. Limited a bit athletically, Ramon can struggle at times against quicker and more physical guards, but his experience and dead-eye shooting touch keeps him in the mix at both guard positions. Benjamin has impressive strength and athletic ability, along with size, for a Big East guard. However, to this point, that has not translated into consistent production. He showed signs as a sophomore with some big games, but last year he seemed to get lost in the shuffle with Graves taking over as the starter at the 2-guard and Mike Cook playing the wing. Benjamin could be poised for a surprising season as a senior with the opportunity for playing time. He will be challenged by impressive freshman Brad Wanamaker, however. Wanamaker, from Roman Catholic High in Philadelphia, was the Player of the Year in High School basketball in Philly and proved time and time again he does what it takes to win. Wanamaker is a strong guard who could develop into an impressive lead guard as he fine tunes his game, but one thing for certain with Wanamaker is he will do all the little things to help his team win.
On the wing Mike Cook returns for his second season of action with the Panthers. The senior, another Philadelphia native, transferred from East Carolina and C-USA after averaging 15 ppg for the Pirates as a sophomore. Cook started well and finished well for Pitt, but a mid-season slump had him looking out of sorts in the Pitt system and Big East at times. He has returned slimmer and with a year of experience under his belt in the Big East he could become one of the leaders on this team. Backing him up should be exciting redshirt freshman Gilbert Brown out of Harrisburg. Brown missed last year after battling injuries and sickness in the preseason and gives the Panthers a new dimension as a long, lean and ultra-athletic 6’6 wing that can play either guard or forward. Making the wing position even deeper is incoming freshman Darnell Dodson, who was one of the top players in the loaded DC-area last season. Dodson, who just turned 18, needs to add strength, and at the time we wrote this he was still going through the NCAA Clearinghouse. The Pitt staff loves his scoring talent and his range goes well beyond the 3-pt range. At 6’7, this is another dimension that Pitt has not previously had.
Normally the bread and butter of the Pittsburgh teams under Howland and Dixon has been strong, deep and experienced big men that keep coming at you over the course of a game. However, the Panthers graduate Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall from last year’s team and do not return anyone taller than 6’7 with experience. Still, this unit should remain competitive for the Panthers, although they will look much different. His breakout was expected last year, but this year the Panthers have no choice but to turn Sam Young loose. His knees appear to be healthy and the Panthers are ready to lean on his athletic 6’7 frame. The Maryland native showed glimpses of a star last year, including an impressive 21-pt performance in a win at WVU and 17 points in 19 minutes in a Big East Tournament win over Marquette. He also scored 37 points in just 66 minutes in three NCAA Tournament games. Young will have to show added presence defensively and on the boards consistently, but his athletic ability will cause him to be a match-up problem for many ‘4’-men in the conference. Joining Young at the power forward spot is fellow junior Tyrell Biggs. Each year, Biggs comes back slimmer and slimmer and looks more and more like a small forward than the 6’7, 260+ lb big man he was in high school. Biggs possesses a fluid and accurate jump shot, but has not shown much of a tendency to get after it in the paint. Maybe he want to shrink into a wing, but the Panthers might still need him as a BF/C combo. He does have a nice inside-out game that can stretch a defense.
The most exciting new piece to the Panther puzzle is 6’7, wide body and gregarious big man Dejuan Blair. The local Pittsburgh product was the state’s player of the year leading Schenley High School to a state championship. Blair has had two knee surgeries, so when he showed up at Pitt this summer over 300 lbs, there was some concern. Blair has already lost nearly 30 pounds and shows off incredible athletic ability for someone that size. He is a bear on the boards and anchoring down low will go at anyone relentlessly. He is also an excellent passer out of the post, hitting open shooters or cutters. While his size at 6’7 could be a concern, the Panthers will have other options in the post, including 6’10 JUCO transfer Cassin Diggs, 6’8 redshirt freshman Austin Wallace and 6’10 frosh Gary McGhee. None of these guys would be expected to give more than 10 minutes a game of some defense and rebounding to help with the match-ups against some of the bigger teams of the conference.
This is a new Pittsburgh team. This group actually has some raw talent and upside that makes them very intriguing. They still have the patented toughness and Jamie Dixon always has his players prepared, playing hard and playing unselfish, but this year you might see a team rely more on their athletic abilities to create scoring opportunities rather than running a system that creates the opportunities for them. The Panther program looks to be evolving under coach Jamie Dixon, but one thing that doesn’t look to be changing much is that there is a very good team here right now. However, it could also become something more in the near future.
BIG EAST PREDICTION: 11-7
Labels: 2007-2008 Preview