2008-2009 BIG EAST PREVIEW: 3) PITTSBURGH
November 2, 2008
Jamie Dixon and his Pittsburgh Panthers enter the 2008-2009 college basketball season with lofty expectations of a preseason top five caliber ball club. Year in and year out the Pitt program has developed in a nationally recognized club that continues to churn out successful seasons, owning a Big East conference best seven year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances.
The only thing missing from their resume of the last seven seasons is a deep run in the NCAA Tournament and fans, players and coaches are very anxious to breakthrough the perceived glass ceiling of their program, while national media and pundits hold off on bestowing the Panther program as a member of the elite in college basketball.
It has still been an impressive seven-year run, five of which has been led by Jamie Dixon. The Panthers have reached four Sweet 16’s, six Big East Conference Tournament Finals, winning two of them and have a winning percentage in regular season contests among the top few in the country. Will this be the season a deep run in the NCAA Tournament puts that final stamp of approval on the Pittsburgh program?
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Through the run, started by Ben Howland, of the last seven or eight years, Pitt has never lit the world on fire on the recruiting trail. Like their consistent winning ways, Pittsburgh has consistently landed good recruiting classes with good players that are unselfish, come from winning programs and typically stay in the program and work within the system. This year, the incoming class is no different. Tough, physical G/F Nasir Robinson from (state-champion) Chester (PA) High School highlights the class. Guards Ashton Gibbs of Seton Hall Prep and Travon Woodall of St. Anthony’s and Houston forward Dwight Miller joined Robinson in the early signing period and JUCO guard Jermaine Dixon, younger brother of former Maryland star Juan Dixon, was a spring signing addition for the backcourt.
The Panthers lose three seniors from last year’s Big East Tournament champion club: Ronald Ramon, Keith Benjamin and Mike Cook. All three had made key contributions throughout their careers, although Cook’s was cut short by a knee injury in Pitt’s memorable OT victory over Duke last December in Madison Square Garden.
The other roster subtractions were big man Cassin Diggs leaving the program after an injury filled junior season, his only in the program, and Austin Wallace taking a medical hardship waiver. Wallace had undergone a series of procedures on an injured knee and is now listed as a student-manager with the program.
The sweet shooting touch of Ronald Ramon is something this Pitt team, on paper, will definitely miss. Ramon was not the biggest shooting guard, nor the most athletic, but he could hit the three-point shot better than anyone else on the roster. Keith Benjamin brought experience and athleticism to the line-up. Cook was a good college player that unfortunately was denied the chance by the NCAA to finish his career on the court. It is a typical Pitt class and seems to be replaced by a group of similar players that might have some higher upside. Gibbs is a sweet-shooting guard that, like Ramon, can play the point if needed. He is a little taller than Ramon and maybe a little more athletic. Robinson seems to be built a little stronger and more athletic than Cook and Dixon seems to be a similar style player to Benjamin with maybe a little more offensive potential. Miller adds frontcourt depth, but has shown a willingness to battle inside and rebound, like a typical Pitt forward.
2008-2009 Backcourt Outlook:
In the Pittsburgh frontcourt, you start with their leader and floor general, Levance Fields. The New York City native is the heart and soul of the Pitt club and has the typical NYC toughness and flair that you so often see. Fields also represents the biggest question surrounding the Panthers as we head into the 2008-2009 season, how healthy is he?
Fields missed 12 games last season due to a broken foot. While the Panthers held their own, going 8-4 in that time frame (including 7-4 in the Big East), they were not the same club. By the time Fields rounded back into shape, his leadership and clutch play led Pittsburgh to the Big East Conference Tournament title. It is that leadership and will to succeed that Pitt will rely on this season.
However, after experiencing more pain in the injured foot, Fields underwent another surgery this past August and the rehab process was slowed by an infection in that foot. Fields is just now starting to work his way into practice as November begins and his health will be the key to the Pitt season.
Behind Fields is a pair of freshmen, Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall. The feeling at Pitt is Woodall is the heir apparent to Fields and the preferred growth plan is for him to spell Fields from time to time this season. The extra practice time and extended early season playing time for Fields should help his growth. Gibbs can also play some point guard, but the role he probably is best suited for is one similar to Ronald Ramon of the previous few seasons, a combo guard that is best suited as their long-range threat. If Fields misses time in the Big East, it will be a tough situation to toss a pair of freshmen into, last season a senior Ramon was able to get by, this year, I do not think they want to go that road again.
The other question that often pops up with this year’s Pittsburgh club is what they have at shooting guard? A couple of options have arisen through the summer and in the preseason. Sophomore Brad Wanamaker returns after a freshman season which he was shaky at times. Wanamaker admitted to being very nervous at times last year and it showed as often it seemed like he was thinking and not reacting. Wanamaker is a tough guard with good athleticism and could be an upper-echelon defender. With this team, that could be ideal at the two-guard if he can refine his ball-handling and decision making.
The other true two-guard option looks to be JUCO transfer Jermaine Dixon. Similar to Wanamaker, Dixon is a strong and athletic guard, more of a slasher when it comes to being a scorer than a shooter, but he has shown the ability to get hot and become a three-point threat. Dixon is a competent ball-handler as well and should be able to work his way into the mix this season in the backcourt.
At the small forward position, the Panthers have exciting sophomore Gilbert Brown. When you look at the Pitt roster and try to predict the next player to come out of nowhere and surprise the Big East, Brown is a very good candidate. Last year the 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman was a regular on the highlight reels with flying dunks or blocked shots. He is a forward who does a little bit of everything and also might be a candidate to play the two-guard this season. He has scoring tools and ability, but is not asked to carry any of the scoring load this season. Nasir Robinson, a freshman, is a tough and physical forward that could develop into a player similar to former Panther Jaron Brown. He has a power-forward’s game, but a guard’s handle and athleticism. It will be interesting to watch him develop.
2008-2009 Frontcourt Outlook:
Joining Luke Harangody as the only unanimous selections to the preseason Big East All-League 1st team by the league’s coaches was Pitt’s Sam Young. Last year’s Most Improved Player of the Big East, Young showed the promise he was touted to possess when he came to Pittsburgh as a freshman. The 6-foot-6 forward showed improvement in nearly every aspect of his game and put up over 18 points and 6 rebounds last year.
This season, Young might be playing a little more at small forward and he certainly has the athletic ability and scoring tools to do so. He will be a tough match-up for the league’s wing players as he can overpower them inside, shoot over them from the outside and take them to the basket with one of the most devastating pump fake moves you will see.
Young’s move to small forward opens the door at power forward for senior Tyrell Biggs, a 6-foot-8, 240 pounder. Biggs has the size to battle inside in the Big East, but he seems to prefer the face-up game on the offensive side. He does have a nice looking jumper for a player his size, but needs to knock it down consistently, which will open the lanes for Young to attack the basket and for the ‘big fella,’ DeJuan Blair to find room in the paint. Biggs is an excellent team defender, usually finding himself in the right place at the right time to draw charges or disrupt the opposing team’s attack.
A potential star in the Big East mans the middle for the Panthers as 6-foot-7, 270 pound DeJuan Blair can be found patrolling the paint. Blair’s 6-foot-7 height does not sound to imposing, but as a freshman, he went toe-to-toe with the biggest players in the conference and never gave an inch as he was named the co-Big East Rookie of the Year with Jonny Flynn of Syracuse. Blair has a great set of hands and is an intimidating rebounder and space eater offensively whose long arms allows him to score against bigger defenders.
Adding depth to the frontcourt is 6-foot-10 sophomore Gary McGhee and 6-foot-8 freshman Dwight Miller. McGhee saw action last year spelling Blair and will look to do so again as he continues to develop his body for better conditioning and game to be more of a threat offensively. Miller has a lot of promise as a relative newcomer to the game. Back home in Houston, he has been tutored by former NBA great Hakeem Olajuwon, so he is an intriguing player to watch in the future.
2008-2009 Team Outlook:
Pittsburgh is a team that we had slated for 2nd right up until this week, but the lingering question about the foot of Levance Fields has us going a little cautious on the Panthers. We feel Pitt will be cautious with their point guard and that is the smart thing to do. Over the last seven years, Pitt has accomplished everything there is to accomplish in the regular season and conference tournaments that they can afford to make sure Fields is at 100% when the NCAA Tournament tips off. That might mean less time on the floor in November and December, or time off if there is any dis-comfort into the conference season. Any time Fields is out of the line-up or limited, the college basketball odds of the Panthers will take a hit, but if that is what it takes for a deeper run in March, than that is what they need to do.
Still, this is a very good basketball team. Sam Young and DeJuan Blair are potential All-American candidates and there is still a tough, hard-nosed core to this team. A healthy Fields pulls the pieces together and makes this an elite contender for the 2008-2009 season that should be one to watch for as a Final Four contender.
2008-2009 Big East Prediction: 13-5
Labels: 2008-2009 preview