By John Perrotto
Pitt, without question, has been one of college basketball’s biggest surprises this season.
The Panthers were unranked and expected to finish in the middle of the Big East pack at the beginning of the season. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for coach Jamie Dixon after losing four starters from a team that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and came within a whisker of advancing to the Final Four before losing to Villanova.
Yet, Pitt will take a 14-2 overall record and a 4-0 conference mark into its game with Louisville (12-5, 3-1) on Saturday afternoon at the Petersen Events Center. Each of the Panthers’ last three games have resulted in conference road victories as they have beaten Syracuse, Cincinnati and Connecticut.
“This team has been interesting in that it has improved so much from the start of the year,” Dixon said. “Guys are getting better and guys are getting healthier. With any coach, you want to see your team improve. When I see where we were at the start of the year and where we are now, I feel good about it.”
What makes Pitt’s ascent into the polls and in the Big East standings even more remarkable is that it was without its two most experienced players for quite a while. Senior guard Jermaine Dixon, the lone returning starter, missed the first eight games while recovering from a broken foot. Junior forward Gilbert Brown sat out the first semester and 11 games to get his academics in order.
However, two new backcourt stars have emerged for Pitt. Sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs is averaging 17.6 points a game and shooting 93 percent from the foul line while junior guard Brad Wannamker has a 10.2 scoring average.
“Pitt’s attack is different this year,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “They rely on perimeter quickness and they’re really good in the guard spots. Before, they had more of a low-post presence in DeJuan Blair and Sam Young. They’re still very talented but they have more depth and quickness than in other years. The one similarity, though, is they still execute so well on the offensive and defensive ends, which is a testament to the type of coach Jamie Dixon is.”
Pitt has gone to the NCAA Tournament in each of Dixon’s six seasons as coach and advanced as far the Sweet 16 three times. Dixon believes his insistence of holding this season’s team to the same standards of his previous squads has played a part in the unexpected success.
“We knew we had a young team coming in but that didn’t mean our demands were any different,” Dixon said. “Our players understood that and our staff understood that. We talked right from the start about the type of team we could be. We have improved every game and every week, and that’s what we want to continue to do all the way through March.”