Pitt Basketball: Introducing The Freshman Class

With basketball season right around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to take a break from all of the football talk and look at the new additions to the hoops squad.  Jamie Dixon and company went out and signed the 12th ranked recruiting class for 2011, according to Scout.  Surprisingly, though, this class only ranked fifth in the Big East behind St. John's, Louisville, Rutgers, and Syracuse.

Enough about rankings and all the jib-jab, let's talk about the players.  Khem Birch, Malcolm Gilbert, Durand Johnson, and John Johnson (no relation to Durand) are the four guys that make up the 2011 class.  Birch was Pitt's only 5-star recruit. Also according to Scout, Gilbert and Durand Johnson were listed as 4-stars, and John Johnson was a 3-star.

The first player to come aboard was shooting guard John Johnson from Philadelphia.  Johnson is a combo guard who has great quickness and is a playmaker.  He can handle the ball very well and can get to the hoop and finish. Even as a smaller guard (6'1" and 175 pounds), he said to play a very tough and aggressive game. He was also was given All-State honors all four years in high school.

The player that I am most excited for was the next to commit to the Panthers.  Durand Johnson, who played shooting guard in high school but is now listed as a small forward, is 6'6" with an even longer wingspan.  The guy isn't a slasher as some might expect.  Coming from a Gilbert Brown mold, he's reportedly been improving his ability to get to the rim and finish.  As of late that ability has started to show up and he is becoming an above the rim player.

Durand is one of the purest, if not the purest, shooters in the class.  His bio on the Pitt Panthers website also tells us that he is a great rebounder and one of the better defenders in the class as well.  Durand looks like he will be a huge threat from three-point range and will also be a great all-around player.  His versatility and his apparent ability is the main reason that I am so excited about him.

Down low, Malcolm Gilbert is a legitimate center at nearly seven feet tall and weighing 240 pounds.  The guy doesn't have a great offensive game, but his ability to defend in the low post, rebound, and make game changing plays on defense is why scouts gave him a 4-star ranking.  He has put on almost thirty pounds since high school and has definitely turned himself in to a dominating physical presence in the paint.  He is an elite shot blocker who has great athleticism and can run the floor as well as any player of his size.  Gilbert is also an outstanding student that considered some Ivy League schools as well as Pittsburgh.  With his intelligence, athleticism, and size - Gilbert should be able to jump right in to the game and be an effective defender while he lets his offensive game have some time to develop.

Now comes the player that most Pitt fans are most excited about - five-star recruit Khem Birch has all of the tools to make him a great player.  One of the best shot blockers in the class, Birch is a monster on the defensive side of the ball.  His length and athleticism combine to make a dominating defensive presence on the floor at all times.  He is listed as extremely coachable, mature, and soft-spoken.  He has also drawn comparisons to Derrick Favors who is now currently playing in the NBA.  His athleticism has been described as phenomenal and he has the ability to guard multiple positions on the floor.  Although his offensive game needs a little bit of fine-tuning, like most big men, he can finish above the rim very well.  Look for him to be an immediate impact player for the Panthers and with an improving offensive repertoire, he could be one of the best freshman in the Big East this year.

Clearly Jamie Dixon has put his focus on defense in this year's class.  Look for the Panthers of the future to use that defense to hopefully catapult them to Big East championships and deep runs in the NCAA Tournament.  The physical play of the Panthers could benefit them in the ACC (or hurt them if the refs call things a bit tighter) regardless of the change in the style of play.  We all know the mantra that "Defense wins championships" and Jamie and his staff seem to believe that defense first is the way to go.

I am not sure at this point if any of these freshmen will be redshirted this season.  Birch and Gilbert will definitely see playing time due to the lack of size currently on the team.  Nasir Robinson, Dante Taylor, and Talib Zanna will man the power forward/center positions, so they'll likely be able to use some help.  Durand Johnson should also get playing time relatively soon because of his ability to score points and also defend well.  The only player that I could see redshirting is John Johnson. With Ashton Gibbs, Travon Woodall, Lamar Patterson, and maybe even Cameron Wright and Isaiah Epps competing for backcourt minutes, it could be tough to break in there.

I can't wait for the upcoming season and am very excited to see what type of impact these freshman will make right out of the gate. With the losses of Brad Wanamaker, Gary McGhee, and Gilbert Brown, there will be some opportunities for them to play right away.

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