By John Perrotto
The Pitt basketball team entered last season without any expectations. It was supposed to be a rare rebuilding year following a trip to the Elite Eight and a painful loss to Villanova in the NCAA Tournament as stars DuJuan Blair and Sam Young moved on to the NBA.
However, the Panthers surprised everyone by going 25-9 and earning a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Xavier in the second round.
It is safe to say Pitt will not sneak up on anybody this season. The Panthers return four starters and seven of their top eight scorers. During Big East Media Day next week, it is almost certain that the conference coaches will vote Pitt as the pre-season favorite.
Yet as Pitt prepared to begin practice Friday, coach Jamie Dixon is trying to temper the enthusiasm by taking the proverbial bulls eye off his team’s back.
“I don’t know how you go from everybody talking about how young we were, and one year later, now you’re the most experienced team,” Dixon said. “We have three seniors, so that doesn’t make you the most experienced team. We’ve got still a lot of young kids as well.”
Pitt does have three double-digit scorers returning, led by junior guard Ashton Gibbs. He is considered a strong candidate for Big East Player of the Year after averaging 15.7 points a game last season while shooting 39 percent from three-point range and 88 percent from the free throw line.
“We have to treat this season like it’s the same thing as last season,” Gibbs said. “We’ve got to stay mentally tough on the court and in practice, just getting after it every day. You can say it’s pressure when people have expectations, but we can’t look at it like that. We just have to look at every game like we’re playing our last. That’s how we played last season and we won a lot of games.”
Senior guard Brad Wannaker averaged 12.3 points and 4.7 assists last season and senior forward Gilbert Brown had a 10.7 scoring average. Also back is senior center Gary McGhee, who grabbed a team-high 6.7 rebounds a game.
“We’ve got our goals,” Wannaker said. “The only goal that matters now is winning the Big East. That’s our focus until the (regular) season is over.”
Pitt will hold a Blue-Gold scrimmage next Friday at the Petersen Events Center that will be open to the public with free admission. The Panthers’ first exhibition game is Oct. 31 at home against Longwood and their regular-season opener is Nov. 8 when they host Rhode Island. They start Big East play on Dec. 27 against visiting Connecticut.