On Wednesday, the 16 Big East programs, including Pitt (for the time being), will head to Madison Square Garden for this year's Big East Media Day. You can bet that the media will be hoarding around Jamie Dixon and Jim Boeheim trying to get insight about Pitt's and Syracuse's moves to the ACC. And as in previous years, another hot button topic will be Big East expansion. The New York Post has said that the Big East will not be issuing invitations until they can decide on raising the exit fee, which they reportedly did on Monday night..
With Media Day coming up, here are a few key topics for the 2011-2012 regular season:
1) How will Pitt overcome the loss of three starters?
In the 2009-2010 season, Pitt managed to not miss a beat despite losing DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, Levance Fields, and Tyrell Biggs as they won 25 games and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. So history says that they should be able to do it again despite losing Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, and Gary McGhee. Travon Woodall and Dante Taylor are two likely replacements as starters. The third is a little less clear. I'm guessing that Woodall will take the point, leaving Ashton to take the 2 position. Nasir has said that he would like to try some time at small forward, but I don't know if he really fits well there due to his lack of a jump shot. So who takes the final starting spot? J.J. Moore? Lamar Patterson? Perhaps if Nasir does end seeing time at SF, could Talib Zanna or Khem Birch play PF? Time will tell.
2) Is this the team that makes the Final Four?
Another season, another disappointing ending. It was a heartbreaking loss for a team that many figured would easily make it to the Final Four. But yet again, Pitt was at the wrong end of yet another heartbreaking March loss. This Panther team is not nearly as veteran as last year's squad or the 2008-09 team, but they are arguably more talented, with two McDonald's All-Americans likely to see significant playing time in Taylor and Birch. Throw in Gibbs with his ability to score, Woodall with his ability to run the floor and drive into the lane, and Nasir's superior play in the paint, and Pitt has talented players at 4 of 5 starting positions. SF is the spot to watch. Pitt doesn't have a proven player at that position who can shoot the three well and drive into the lane, but if Patterson or Moore steps up, the team has just as good of a chance as anyone to make it to the Final Four in New Orleans.
3) Who will improve the most this season?
Pitt always has one player that really shines each season that you wouldn't expect. The obvious choice for most improved is Dante Taylor as he moves into the starting role at center with the graduation of McGhee. He has to step up if Pitt wants to be able to contend with Big East frontcourts. The transition from Blair to McGhee went smoothly for the most part so I don't feel as though Taylor will have problems adjusting. It'll take time, but Dante will fit in nicely. An under-the-radar player to watch is J.J. Moore. He is a nearly identical version of Gil Brown, with similar athletic ability and explosiveness. But Brown was often plagued with inconsistent scoring throughout his career and it cost Pitt in some games. Can Moore become another consistent scorer? Gibbs will get his points and Nasir is a capable scorer but Pitt really needs one or two more guys to emerge offensively if they want to go far in March.
4) How much will Khem Birch play this season?
Birch is arguably the highest-rated recruit to ever wear a Panthers uniform and expect fans to be clamoring for him to start should Dante struggle early (think Pitt's QB controversy - speaking of, who's the popular choice now? Mark Myers?). Birch will likely see considerable playing time - at least as much as Taylor did when he was a freshman. The non-conference games will say a lot. Barring a considerable difference between the two as the season goes on, Jamie Dixon will likely not switch starters. My guess is that Birch will likely see around 10-15 minutes a game and fit in nicely as a defensive-oriented player.