Pitt football talk has been so depressing lately that I've decided to start thinking more about the bright spots in the athletic program - namely basketball season. With the annual Blue and Gold scrimmage coming up, we are just that much closer to the tip-off of the 2011 college basketball season. Jamie Dixon and company, as always, did a tremendous job in recruiting for this season. Despite the loss of an on-floor leader in Brad Wannamaker, a playmaker Gilbert Brown, and low-post presence Gary McGhee, Pitt has returned some key players and are still looking to make a deep run in March
I don't want to get ahead of myself and say that Pitt has a national championship caliber team on the floor this season just yet. But what they do have is great talent - definitely enough talent to propel them to Big East regular season and tournament titles. Here are my top five reasons why these Panthers will win the Big East.
1. Despite losing three senior starters, Pitt still has plenty of experience
Ashton Gibbs, Nasir Robinson, Travon Woodall, Dante Taylor, and Talib Zanna are returning from last year's squad. All five players contributed a large chunk of minutes during the 2010-11 season. Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore also saw the floor for just about ten minutes per game last year and have gotten a taste of Big East play. Experience always seems to be a big factor on the Pitt roster because most players stay for their four years of eligibility.
2. Ashton Gibbs is a great leader on and off the court
Despite his quiet demeanor, Ashton is not only Pitt's best player, but the leader of the team as well. Gibbs has improved every season and last year, he upped his scoring average to nearly 17 points per game while shooting 49% from three-point range.
He has been named to a number of pre-season watch lists and All-America lists. Gibbs is the best long range shooter in the Big East and is without a doubt one of the best in the country as well. He takes good shots, plays hard, works hard, and has done a great job at setting an example for younger players.
3. Pitt's size down low
Although size has been a moderate concern in recent years with inconsistent play by Gary McGhee and injuries to other big men, this upcoming season should go a bit differently. Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna have the capability to provide solid minutes at the 4 or 5. Defensively there is a bit of a drop off when transitioning from McGhee to Taylor or Zanna, but the addition of freshmen Khem Birch and Marcus Gilbert should help minimize the difference.
Both Birch (6' 9" 220 pounds) and Gilbert (6' 11" 235) have been putting on weight this summer, looking to make an immediate impact for the Panthers. The weight will definitely help when they are being banged around all winter during the physical Big East schedule. Both are extremely sound defensively and should be able to replace McGhee down low without much trouble. They are also starting to develop their offensive games after working with coaches all summer and will definitely improve with legitimate practices underway.
4. Jamie Dixon is one of the best coaches in the country
Talking about Jamie Dixon is almost like a broken record at this point. Since his promotion to head coach after the Ben Howland era, Dixon has done nothing but win. He has an uncanny ability to not only find those recruits that are either forgotten about or underrated, but also coach them to be some of the best players in the country. When it comes to player development, Jamie has to be one of the best in all of college sports.
Dixon is the backbone of this team and as long as he is courtside at the Pete, the Panthers will be a force to be reckoned with.
5. The Panthers simply win almost every game at the Pete
With 17 home games this season (and one at Consol Energy Center) Pitt can almost bet on winning at least 15-16 of those games since Pitt wins about 96% of their games at home and are currently 9-0 against top five teams. The Pete has become a huge advantage for the Panthers, largely due to the fan support received from the Zoo.
As much as some people like to say that the fans don't make a difference in a game, as a current student, I have to strongly disagree. Over the years, teams with a dominating student presence at home have done increasingly well and players continue to comment on how it affects them during the game. The Oakland Zoo has been called one of the best sections in the country numerous times and has even been cited by Ashton Gibbs as one of the reasons that he chose Pitt in the first place.
The incredible atmosphere at the Pete and extremely talented players makes beating Pitt at home nearly impossible.
Conclusion: My prediction? The Panthers will finish with a 28-3 record and defend their Big East regular season title. They'll then follow their great regular season by defeating UConn in the Big East championship game. After that, they'll enter the NCAA tournament with another No. 1 seed in the tournament.
After that? That's anybody's guess.