This article was inspired by a recent exchange on Twitter between fellow contributors Jim Hammett, Jesse Irwin, and myself. At first, it didn't seem like a hard question to answer. However, when I really started thinking about all the players who have taken the floor at the Petersen Events Center for the Pittsburgh Panthers, it became hard to pick the "best" starting five.
I may write an article about who would come off the bench depending on how well this does. Before I unveil my starting five, I want to get a few things out of the way:
- I graded players against other players at the same position and/or their ideal position, and based on how they would fit together. There is only one ball, so keep that in mind.
- This team wasn't assembled to play the current schedule or any past schedule.
- Players who played/started for three or four years didn't receive "bonus points" just because they inevitably produced more.
- Pro careers weren't considered, especially when it comes to skills they developed after they left the 'Pete'.
With those things out of the way, let's get to my starting five:
Point Guard - Brandin Knight - 1999-2003: Was there really another acceptable answer for the point guard position? I mean the guy's number is retired and his banner hangs from the Petersen rafters. Knight will always be my favorite Panthers player, and was the first point guard to take the floor at the 'Pete'.
In the 2001-2002 season, he was an AP Third-Team All-American, and the co-Big East POY. In the 2002-2003 season, he was named to the Wooden All-American team, and was an AP honorable mention All-American.
He was the definition of a floor general. Knight holds the Pitt record for career assists (785), career assist average (6.2 per game), single-season assists (251), career steals (298), and minutes played in a single-season (1,284). Shooting wasn't his specialty - career 39.9% from the floor and 32.0% from beyond the arc, but he made big plays when it mattered. He really struggled from the charity stripe (career 53.7%), but there was no one you would rather be in a foxhole with.
I distinctly remember him single-handedly trying to will the Panthers back against Marquette and some guy named Dwyane Wade in the Sweet Sixteen in 2003. I'll never forget senior Donatas Zavackas sitting on the sidelines with his shoes off pouting when his team needed him most. As a teenager who attended every home game that season, it crushed me. However, it also cemented Knight's legacy for me - the greatest point guard in Pitt history.
Shooting Guard - Ashton Gibbs - 2008-2012: Who else would you want manning the shooting guard position besides arguably the best shooter in recent Panthers history? Look, I know he played point guard sometimes, but he was very good off the ball. His sophomore year he was named the Big East Conference Most Improved Player, and an All-Big East Second-Team selection. Gibbs was named to an All-Big East First-Team selection, and an AP honorable mention All-American his junior year.
Pitt has only missed the NCAA Tournament one time since they started playing at the 'Pete'. It was unfortunately Gibbs' senior season, but he can't shoulder all the blame. He averaged 12.8 points per game in his four years as a Panther. Gibbs was a marksman from downtown; his career average from three-point land was 41%, and he shot an insane 49% his junior year.
He was also a career 87.2% from the free throw line, and there was no Pitt player you would rather have at the line late in games than Gibbs. His ability to handle the ball and connect from beyond the arc would stretch the defense, and not allow any frontcourt player to be doubled in the post so long as Gibbs was on the strong side.
Small Forward - Sam Young - 2005-2009: Young is arguably the best athlete who has ever worn a Panthers uniform in the 'Pete'. He also played on arguably the best team in recent Pitt history (2008-2009), and was as decorated with post-season accolades as any player on this team. He was named a Big East First-Team selection his junior and senior year.
Young was an AP honorable mention All-American his junior year, and was named AP Third-Team All-American his senior year. He won the Big East Conference Tournament MVP Award in 2008, and averaged 23.5 points per game in four NCAA Tournament games in 2009, which helped lead the Panthers to their only Elite Eight appearance since the Petersen Events Center opened.
Young could get to the basket at will; he was a terrific slasher. He was a very efficient player from the floor, as evidenced by his 50+% shooting percentage his junior and senior seasons. Crashing the boards wasn't a problem for Young either; he averaged 6.3 rebounds per game his last two years at Pitt, and he was a decent shooter from beyond the arc (35.6% for his career).
He didn't have the best handle, but he wouldn't need to handle the ball very much on this team. His weak-side cutting and slashing ability would get him easy buckets. Young could also create his own shot if necessary, and his driving ability would draw a lot of fouls. Defensively, he could use his size and athleticism to shut down opposing players.
Power Forward - DeJuan Blair - 2007-2009: Blair is perhaps the most beloved Panther over the last decade. His infectious moxie, big smile, and style of play captured the hearts of Pitt fans the world over. He was one of the few players that most fans were okay with leaving after just two seasons. His sophomore year saw Blair take home the co-Big East POY Award, and he was a consensus AP First-Team All-American.
Blair engulfed rebounds; his freshman year he averaged 9.1 rebounds per game, and he averaged a hefty 12.3 rebounds per game his sophomore year. Thanks to his rebounding ability, DeJuan was able to get a lot of his points on putbacks and finished his career with a field goal percentage of 56.8%. Despite being an undersized center and power forward, he averaged a block per game for his career.
He had fast hands as well - registering 1.6 steals per game. Blair would fit nicely on this Panthers team as a guy who can clean the glass, and the passing ability of the guards, particularly Knight, would allow him to get more easy baskets around the rim. His career scoring average of 13.6 points per game is higher than any other player in the starting five, but starting every game for his two-year career certainly helped.
Center - Aaron Gray - 2003-2007: I think Gray is one of the least appreciated Pitt players in recent team history. He wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing player to ever grace the 'Pete', but he certainly was one of the most productive. Gray was named an AP Third-Team All-American his senior year, and helped lead the Panthers to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
Gray averaged 13.9 points per game in both his junior and senior years. He also averaged just under 10 rebounds per game in his final two seasons (9.94). Aaron shot at least 52% from the floor in all four seasons, and increased his blocks per game every year. Gray was featured heavily his last two years at Pitt, and for good reason.
He wouldn't have to be a featured player on this team, but his presence on the court would force opposing defenses to account for him at all times. That factor really separated him from more defensive oriented centers like Steven Adams (who I love).
Gray wouldn't be able to run the floor as well as some other players, and the paint would be rather clogged at times with both him and Blair on the floor. With that said, those two factors alone weren't enough to warrant including another player in either slot.
I did my best to try and keep this under 1,000 words - that didn't happen, sorry. I would be happy to elaborate in the comments section though.
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