Monday, November 10, 2008

Pitt Basketball Season Preview

PA Announcer at Petersen Events Center: "And the coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers, Bob Huggins"
Thousands of screaming, seething, excited, and basketball hungry Pitt fans (In unison): "HE SUCKS TOO!"

That's right folks, it's basketball season, and as a Pitt student I really couldn't be any more excited to spend another season with my fellow lunatics in the asylum that is the Oakland Zoo. Cheers like the one above just warm my soul. And so, with another season about ready to tip off this Friday evening at the Pete against the mighty Fairleigh Dickinson... hold on a sec, let me look up their nickname on Google... Knights, I thought I'd usher in what looks to be the Panthers best returning team since the Brandin Knight/ Julius Page/ Jaron Brown era with a little season preview.

Returning Contributors
This past spring, after the Panthers were yet again knocked out too early in the NCAA tournament, many a Pitt student thought they had seen the last days of Sam Young wearing the home 2-3 jersey for our beloved Panthers. Turns out they were wrong, much to my surprise. For those of you not aware, Young is 23 years old right now, and will be 24 before next June's draft, and I will go to my grave thinking he made a mistake in not going pro last year. NBA teams just usually aren't interested in 24 year old rookies, but for now, I suppose there's no use jumping ahead.

No, instead, I should be rejoicing (and believe me, I definitely am) that our studly go-to player of a year ago has returned for what should be an excellent senior season. What's interesting about Sammy is that, despite putting up excellent numbers from the power forward position a season ago, the wise Jamie Dixon has opted to switch his All Big East performer to the small forward position. I wasn't totally surprised by this move, given Pitt's lack of perimeter players and abundance of inside men, but I was surprised when I read that Dixon has no intention of playing Young at power forward at all this season. No matter though, as I still think we should be able to pencil in Sam I Am for a minimum 18-20 points and 5-6 boards a night and some serious mismatches against smaller, less physical players. And therein lies the point of what Dixon is doing. He knows that with Young at the 4 and Blair at the 5, the Panthers, no matter how talented those two are, are still badly undersized. With Young at the 3 though, he knows that his ultra-athletic star can not only more than hold his own defensively against quicker, smaller guard-like small forwards thanks to his jaw-dropping athleticism, he can also abuse these same players with his physical style on the offensive end. I mean, think about some of the 3-men Pitt has had over the years. Sure, Mike Cook probably could have done a okay job against Sam, but remember when the Panthers were starting Keith Benjamin at the 3 towards the end of last season? Or Antonio Graves? Or (wow I can't believe this guy started for Pitt) Yuri Demetris? While Graves and Benjamin could have defended Young on the wing, he would have broken the two of them in half on the inside, and Demetris couldn't have covered Sam Young with a baseball bat. If teams think they are throwing a 3 guards lineup at the Panthers and getting away with it, they are sorely mistaken.

Sliding in and taking the Samster's spot at the 4 will be senior Tyrell Biggs. Biggs has been the consummate prototypical Pitt role player for the past three seasons. His freshman year he was sparingly used toward the end of the season and appeared a little overweight and out of shape for much of the season. He came back his sophomore seasons looking much more svelte (that's a fun word) and while he looked like a totally different player, his path was still blocked by the two immobile giants, Levon Kendall and Aaron Gray, despite the fact that Biggs could have beaten either in a foot race with cement boots on. Still, Biggs kept working and last season saw some consistent playing time thanks to a rash of injuries and the inconsistencies of freshman star DaJuan Blair. He average right at 20 minutes a game, and while he was rarely spectacular, he proved to myself and any loyal Pitt follower that he was more than capable of stepping in and playing some serious minutes, which is why it was no surprise when I heard that he was the reason Sam Young was shifting to small forward. I will definitely be intrigued to see how Biggs reacts to being a starter this season, and while I think he won't be playing nearly as many minutes as Young, DaJuan Blair, and Levance Fields (when healthy), he will be an important cog for the Panthers all year long.

Starting next to Biggs will be hulking sophomore sensation DaJuan Blair, the 4-1-2 kid himself. Blair had one of the best freshman seasons in Pitt history, and there's little reason to expect anything different from him this year. The switch of Young to the 3 and Biggs at the 4 should benefit Blair quite a bit this season, as well. Having three players who are all essentially power forwards should make it a little easier on Blair underneath as they spread opposing teams' big men out a little more. It will also be intriguing to see if they follow up with a rumored plan to get Blair some minutes at the 4 spot with Gary McGhee at the 5. It could also even be argued that Biggs and Blair will both be 4.5's and not a 4 and a 5 given that Biggs is the taller one. Getting Blair minutes at the 4 would also be a beneficial move for his career as his natural position for the long term is clearly at the power forward spot no matter how much he may play like a center.

The backcourt will see the return of the consummate floor general, Levance Fields. Fields enters his senior season with lingering questions about the foot injured that derailed much of his junior season. He is questionable for the opener Friday night against the Fair Dick Knights (that's a far superior name), and even if he does suit up, expect Coach Dixon to ease him back into the rotation. If the Panthers expect to finally break through that ceiling that has developed in the Sweet Sixteen, they will need a healthy Fields during the Big East season to ensure a good seed and they will especially need their point guard come March Madness time, so if he skips out on a few early season games and plays limited minutes in some others, I won't lose much sleep over it. If anything, this could be somewhat beneficial for the team to develop the chops of a few youngsters who will back Fields up. With the development of Blair and the continued excellence of Young I fully expect Fields' assist numbers to be spectacularly high.

One serious X factor for the coming season will be sophomore swingman Gilbert Brown. Brown got a bit of bad news recently when he developed a stress facture in his foot, and likely will miss some time because of it. That aside, he is basically the definition of an energy bench player and his athleticism lets him play the 2 or 3, both potentially critical positions for the Panthers this season. With Sam Young playing the 3 for the most part (though I'm not sure I really buy that Young won't play any 4 this year), expect Brown to see a fair amount of time playing the shooting guard. At 6'6 he will be one of the biggest 2 guards in the entire country and yet definitely has the skill set to match up with the shorter counterparts. This could be a big season for Brown, and while he likely lost the starting job for now when he got injured, he is going to be a definite crunch time player for the Panthers and it will be worth keeping an eye on how he develops his scoring touch, especially a potential perimeter game that could make him a legit star and pro prospect down the line.

Brad Wanamaker will be a part of the group that splits time at the 2 guard, and he showed a little ability last season to spend some time playing the point guard. I doubt we'll see much of him at the 1 this year, but it's worth remembering nonetheless. It's difficult to say if he'll see much more time than last year, as he still looks a little raw to me after watching the early exhibition games. The development of the other potential guards, especially JUCOer Jermaine Dixon, will go a long way toward determining Wanamaker's playing time.

Gary McGhee rounds out our returning players, and he will be an interesting case to keep an eye on. McGhee reminds me a fair amount of what Aaron Gray was when he came to Pitt some years ago. Of course this by is not to suggest that I think McGhee will develop into a double double machine around whom Pitt will base its offense for 2 years, but it is at least worth noting to the detractors out there who feel McGhee is nothing more than a minutes eater. Jamie Dixon's track record suggests he can mold McGhee into a solid player (at worst), and I think we should expect to see some serious improvement from McGhee this season to the point that they may rely some on him to play some minutes in the clutch that will allow DaJuan Blair to spend more time playing the power forward spot, as I previously delved into.

New Players
In the early stages of the offseason, many assumed that the biggest new contributor would have to be JUCO transfer Jermaine Dixon, who is the brother of former Maryland star and NBA player Juan Dixon. Dixon is certainly the most Big East-ready of the bevy of new players brought in, and has demonstrated something of a knack for the perimeter shot early on. He is also a slasher and should be able to put up some nice numbers on the board in the early going, assuming he wins the starting job. I mentioned earlier that I felt that Gil Brown was a definite X Factor for this year, but I think that Dixon is probably every bit the same X Factor, as the Panthers need at least one (and preferably both) of these two to really step into legit crunch time players, and if this leads to not enough being available for the two of them, then so be it, but that's a very good problem to have in my opinion.

At this point in the preseason, though, I'm not so sure that Dixon is actually the most important newcomer, as I think that circumstance may have transferred that role to true freshman Ashton Gibbs or potentially fellow true freshman Travon Woodall. With Levance Fields out, these two have filled the gap through two exhibition games by mostly splitting time. Gibbs has had slightly more minues, and has definitely looked like the better of the two, and if Fields can't go, expect to see Gibbs get the starting nod. Both will undoubtedly go through growing pains, and if either is asked to taken on a lot of minutes during the Big East season it could certainly be to the team's detriment. I also don't think either will be asked to do much in the way of consistent scoring, but both have demonstrated something of a knack for hitting the 3, and if one can learn to consistently hit the tre, it would be hard to keep him on the bench given this squad's general lack of long range threats.

I'm curious to see how the two freshmen forwards are used. Nasir Robinson was the higher ranked recruit of the two and looked to be further along after the two games, but Miller is a better inside presence as opposed to Robinson's presence on the wing. It's worth noting that neither one would likely see a whole lot of playing time once the Panthers hit the meat of their schedule, so how they fair in practice, in the two exhibition games, and in the first game or two of the regular season may determine whether or not one, both, or neither take a redshirt this year.

The Bottom Line

All in all, the Panthers appear geared for a big season, and with a number 6 ranking in what is undoubtedly the toughest conference in college basketball, it's safe to say that the expectations don't get any higher. They have a good mix of experienced and wildly talented veterans to go along with talented and potentially productive newcomers, and they also have players who more than understand their roles, guys like Biggs and Brown. Their bread will be buttered with the post game, same as it has the past few seasons, and while they certainly will take a lump or two in the unbelievably tough Big East Conference, few teams in the country have their overall talent and as they say, the cream always rises to the top. I expect big things from the Panthers this season, and as a very bold prediction, I'm saying, right here and right now, that the Panthers finally smash that threshold and become a Final Four squad, inciting riots Oakland-wide, because if we riot for a Philadelphia World Series championship and for the results of a Presidential election, it's about time the students here had a real reason to riot.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

You really think Gary McGhee is ready to play some crunch time minutes? I surely don't. Did you see that G-town game a year ago at the Pete when he came in for about 2 minutes and racked up 3 fouls, I think, on Roy Hibbert. I know he was as raw as Aaron Gray when he came in, but I don't think he has that same ceiling to be molded into. Just my opinion. Good colum though.