If there were banners for pre-season first place finishes the Panthers would be running out of room to hang them. For the second time this season, a Pitt team has been selected to finish atop the Big East Conference–let’s hope it doesn’t take half the season for Jamie Dixon’s club to rise above .500 though. Villanova and Syracuse were picked second and third while rival West Virginia placed fifth.
Perhaps the most dangerous team in the mix is the Georgetown Hoyas. Traditionally the matchup has been a slugfest between two of the nations top teams. five of the previous eight times the teams met Georgetown has been ranked in the top 15. Those eight games have been split right down the middle with the Hoyas getting the best of Pitt last year 74-66 at the Peterson Events Center. Greg Monroe, the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft is gone, but pre-season player of the year Austin Freeman and second team all-Big-East guard Chris Wright are still in school. They will be joined by talents Jason Clark and Julian Vaughn.
Syracuse and Villanova will be tough matchups for obvious reasons. Both the Orange and Wildcats have NBA caliber players returning to the lineup along with star-studded recruiting classes. What makes Georgetown so dangerous is that John Thompson III has made a living by pounding the ball inside to his star big men. The absence of Monroe will leave Georgetown’s interior weaker than in seasons past, but JT3 will make sure a new star develops by the time Big East play starts. Combine Thompson’s system with his talented guards and the Hoya’s will be a final four contender.
Ashton Gibbs is the only Pitt player to make any pre-season All-Big-East team, and he has also found a place on the Wooden pre-season to 50 list. The constant problem for Pitt though is they don’t have a superstar to carry the team through tough stretches. As much of a threat as Gibbs is, he is just not athletic enough to be that guy. Brad Wannamaker–a solid but not super talented player–needs to cut down on his turnovers and step up his defensive game if he wants to take the superstar role. Dante Taylor and Gary McGee will again split time at the center position and both will provide the Dixon-brand defense that drives Pitt into the top-15 every year. Offensively both need to improve though. Role players like Nasir Robinson and J.J. Richardson will provide bench help but won’t win games. One major difference between this years team and last years team though is the outstanding freshmen class.
J.J. Moore is too good to keep off the bench and will become Pitt’s next Sam Young. Redshirt freshman Talib Zanna is also an outstanding talent who is thought to be a future pro by most of his teammates. The Nigerian native is high on athleticism and skill, but still raw when it comes to system play and offense. He will be a fan favorite in two years, but he is still a little young and inexperienced to lead the team to glory this year.
If the Panthers are going to develop a star this season, it must be one of two guys: Travon Woodall or Gilbert Brown.
Frustrated would the correct word to describe watching Woodall play last season–suicidal might be closer to what Panther fans were feeling though. Believe it or not Pitt fans, the Brooklyn native may finish his career as a better point guard and Levance Fields. Blasphemy? Not quite; here is why.
Woodall is quicker than Fields. As a result, his defense and his driving ability are better, which is crucial since he is not the distributor his Brooklyn counter-part was (even though he was tops on the team with a 2/1 assist to turnover ratio). His perimeter shot must improve but I am more inclined to believe his low percentage was due to a lack of consistency than poor shooting ability. His fundamentals are right, but sometimes his shot selection is wrong. Look for him to improve in this facet over the course of the season. He might just be the best defender on the team. Quicker than most of his opponents, Woodall forces an ill-advised shot or dump off more often than not. The one thing which he can never match Fields in is clutchness–i’m not sure if Max Talbot can even touch Fields in that regard. Leadership is one of the redshirt sophomore’s strengths though. He may not begin the year in the starting lineup, but he will be a key component late in the season. Still, he is not as gifted offensively as a star needs to be. When he adds more experience and improves his shot, he will be a pleasant surprise to his doubters.
That leaves the 23-year-old Brown as the Panthers star. Brown has all the intangibles–crazy athleticism, height, and handles. He improved his shooting last year to almost 40% from 3-point range–which ranked first on the team. He was also third on the team at 71% from the free throw line. This is extremely important since his aggressive play draws more fouls than anyone else on the Panthers squad. Brown will not be kept out of the starting line-up this year, but to become a super star he must improve on one thing: his consistency. Last season he alternated between single and double digit scoring outputs in 14 straight games.
So why do I think he can break through this year?
His routine ended in the NCAA tournament, where he was clearly Pitt’s best player. Averaging 15.5 ppg, including 5-7 from beyond the arc, in just over 20 mpg is phenomenal. He was also the team’s leading scorer during their summer trip to Ireland. He knows that he needs a big senior season to have any future in basketball. Besides consistency though, he must improve his rebounding. Dixon knows that Brown must develop into an draft pick this year if he wants to crack the elite eight ceiling. Do not expect him to let his star player only average 3.2 rebounds a game again this year.
I’ll save my prediction for a future article, but just as this team was underrated last year, they may be overrated this year. One thing that will contribute to Pitt’s final standing is that college basketball is a down as it has been in a while thanks to the 24 first-round draft picks that were underclassmen. The Panthers are a top-10 team, but can they win the Big East and make it to the final four? It depends on Gilbert Brown.