Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pittsburgh surprising everyone but itself

Back in October, Pittsburgh was picked to finish ninth in the Big East by the league coaches. Not surprisingly, the Panthers were looking forward to proving people wrong.

“This is nothing new to us,” senior guard Jermaine Dixon told me at the time. “I love being an underdog, I love that. I love to have that challenge, and [my teammates] feel the same way as me.”

Dixon and his teammates have been arguably the biggest surprise in college basketball this season, starting the season 15-2, including 5-0 in the Big East.

With the loss of four starters, namely forwards Sam Young and DeJuan Blair and guard Levance Fields, Pittsburgh had very low expectations this season. However, sophomores Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson and juniors Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee have made sure the Panthers did not miss a beat. Additionally, since the additions of Dixon and junior Gilbert Brown in December, Pittsburgh has not lost a game.

Head coach Jamie Dixon is not surprised at the success of his team this season.

“We didn’t lower our expectations, so I’m not surprised by where we’re at. And the players understood that, the staff understood that,” Dixon said. “Right now, we’re a team that has surprised some people but hasn’t surprised ourselves.”

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said that people who picked Pittsburgh to finish in the bottom half of the Big East this season simply weren’t looking at the Panthers’ personnel.

“They were picked low for the same reason we were – they lost their three best players,” Boeheim said. “But they have very good players, and prognostications are always based on who you have coming back. People didn’t know how good Gibbs was; he’s as good as anyone in the league in the backcourt. Dixon is as good of a defender as anyone in the league. Wanamaker is a very good player.

“It’s all these predictions; it’s all based on who you lost. And when you lose a lot of guys and don’t have five McDonald’s All-Americans coming in like North Carolina, you’re picked low.”

Gibbs played under Dixon on the United States’ U-19 team in New Zealand last summer, winning a gold medal. That experience has clearly helped Gibbs become a better player this season, as he is averaging 17.5 points per game and knocking down better than 43 percent of his three-point attempts.

While Gibbs is not the same sort of playmaker as his predecessor Fields was, his scoring ability makes Pittsburgh more difficult to defend.

“Gibbs is an improvement, a big improvement,” Boeheim said. “And some other guys are improvements, because they shoot the ball better.”

Boeheim is not the only Big East coach who thinks that Pittsburgh might be a better offensive team without Blair, Young and Fields.

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said the versatile skill sets of the guards and wings makes the Panthers harder to game plan against.

“They rely more on perimeter quickness,” Pitino said. “They’re a different team than the ones in the past. The similarities are that they still execute offensively and defensively. But their personnel is more difficult to prepare for in the past. It’s the same execution, but different personnel.”

Along with Gibbs, Wanamaker has been a major key in the backcourt. He is averaging 13.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists and averaged 19.5 points in the two wins over Connecticut and Louisville last week.

Before the season, many people around the program thought that Wanamaker would be the key to the offense – he certainly has not disappointed.

“He’s always been a good player,” coach Dixon said. “Last year he had some flashes, he played well against Connecticut last year. When you’re coming off the bench and not getting as many minutes, you’re going to have games where you’re having good games and games when you’re not. He’s a better shooter, a better decision-maker. He’s gotten better each year.”

Some rival coaches in the conference believe that Pittsburgh is an elite program, the type of team that will always compete no matter the personnel.

Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said he noticed in the first couple of weeks that the Panthers were going to be better than expected, and he is not the least bit surprised.

“There were signs early in the year, with the way they played Texas,” Cronin said of the Panthers’ 78-62 loss to the Longhorns that was much closer than the score indicated. “They beat Kent State without their two most experienced players, and Kent State is a very formidable mid-major team. They beat Wofford, came from behind in that game.

“The DNA is that program is that ‘we’ll do whatever it takes to win. We don’t turn the ball over, we defend people – this is our formula for success’, and it’s not questioned.”

In addition to the backcourt play and midseason additions of Dixon and Brown, the typical Panthers’ defense and rebounding prowess have been two more keys to success this season.

Pittsburgh has allowed more than 70 points just five times this season, ranking No. 8 in the country in scoring defense and No. 25 in defensive efficiency, according to Moreover, despite starting just one player taller than 6-5, Pittsburgh ranks No. 22 in defensive rebounding percentage and No. 19 in rebound margin. The Panthers have been outrebounded in just two games this season, and the last time it occurred was November 24.

“They play the same great defense,” Boeheim said. “They lost two great inside players, but they’re very good – they can play with anyone in the country. They’re a different team now.”

Although not getting the type of national exposure as some of the other top Big East teams, Pittsburgh has won road games at Syracuse, Cincinnati and Connecticut and has the potential to play with anyone in the country.

Jamie Dixon is not putting anything past his team this season.

“Since we’ve improved every game and every week, we won’t set any bars again,” Dixon said. “I think there’s no limit for this team.”


  1. Too bad you decided to wait till after Pitt lost at home to post this article.

  2. Yeah I was posted at NBE Basketball Report before the loss, so at least it got some publicity before the defeat.