Pittsburgh has accomplished so much in Jamie Dixon's seven seasons as coach. The Panthers have won Big East regular-season and tournament titles, rose to the top of The Associated Press poll for the first time in school history and made the NCAA Tournament every year.
However, one thing is missing from the resumes of Pitt and Dixon. The Panthers haven't been able to get over the hump and reach the Final Four, their closest brush coming in 2009 when lost a heartbreaker to Villanova in the last seconds of the East Regional final.
Perhaps this will finally be the year. Pitt seemingly has what it takes to make a run at playing in Houston at the end of the season as it has four starters back from a team that went a surprising 25-9 last season despite losing DeJuan Blair and Sam Young to the NBA.
While Dixon, as usual, is trying to keep expectations to a minimum, the Big East coaches picked Pitt as the favorite during the conference media day on Wednesday in New York. Senior forward Gilbert Brown is willing to openly talk about getting to the college basketball's Promised Land.
"We thought we had a really good shot two years ago and we thought we had a good shot last year, even though a lot of people didn't expect much out of us," Brown said. "I see no reason why we can't do it this year. We've got the talent and we've got the experience. I think it's something we can achieve. We should definitely have the national championship as one of our goals."
It seemed going into last season that Pitt's run of nine straight appearances in the NCAAs would end. Blair and Young seemed too much to replace in one season, making it what was sure to be a rebuilding year. Pitt was not ranked in the top 25 in the preseason.
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. Yet Dixon is trying hard to take the proverbial bull's 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."
What Dixon fails to mention is that Pitt also three double-digit scorers returning, led by junior guard Ashton Gibbs, who averaged 15.7 points/2.8 rebounds/1.8 assists/34.6 minutes a game last season. Though Gibbs will be a strong candidate for Big East Player of the Year honors, he says it is important for him and his teammates to take the same approach they did last season when there were no preseason expectations.
"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 12.5/5.7/4.7/32.5 and Brown had a 10.7/3.2/1.8/23.7 as the sixth man. Two other starters back are senior center Gary McGhee (6.9/6.8/0.6/24.2) junior power forward Nasir Robinson (6.6/5.6/1.6/24.9)
“We're excited about this group,” Dixon said. “We’re still breaking in some guys, but I really like this group, and what they have to offer. They’re very outgoing. They’re very fun. They’re a good group.”
A group that could keep playing longer than any team since Pitt's 1940-41 squad went to the Final Four back in the days when the NCAA Tournament was just an eight-team affair.
"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. We'll worry about the rest after that."
Coastal Carolina in New Role
Another team that won't sneak up on anyone this season is Coastal Carolina, the pre-season favorite in the Big South Conference. The Chanticleers are the defending regular-season league champions after setting a school record for victories by going 28-7 last season.
A year ago, Coastal Carolina was picked eighth in the 10-team conference in the pre-season poll of coaches and media members. Thus, the perception of the program has changed dramatically after the Chanticleers went to the NIT in coach Cliff Ellis' three seasons.
"I think the attitude around the program has changed," Ellis said told the Myrtle Beach Sun-News. "I mean, we went from one winning season in (15) years to winning the league. So when you've been at the bottom so long, certainly there's an excitement that we're not on the doormat anymore."
Coastal Carolina lost three starters but have their leading scorer of a year ago back in senior forward Chad Gray, who as the sixth man last year averaged 14.3/4.8/0.7/23.5. The two returning starters are both sophomores, point guard Kierre Greenwood (9.1/2.9/3.3/25.7) and forward Sam McLaurin (3.2/5.0/0.9/18.5).
The Chanticleers should get a big boost on December 13 when senior forward Mike Holmes becomes eligible. He is a transfer from South Carolina who joins former Gamecocks teammate Gray at Coastal Carolina.
While Ellis has a talented team, he is curious about how it will respond to being the conference favorite.
"We've become the hunted instead of the hunter," Ellis said. "Every time you go somewhere, all the fans are going to show up. It will be a different scenario. We won't surprise anybody."
Lobos Getting Physical
New Mexico had a marvelous season last year as it went 30-5. However, coach Steve Alford feels the Lobos' weakness was exposed in their second-round loss to Washington in the NCAA Tournament. New Mexico got outmuscled by the Huskies but Alford says it won't happen again.
"We've got the bodies now," Alford said. "If you look at our bodies, we can at least match up on paper with a team like San Diego State. Our whole league is getting more physical, which we like. We tried to bring that to our program. We want to wear people down. We don't want to just rely on The Pit ramp and the altitude. We hope we can have some kind of influence with our 'physicalness.'"
While San Diego State and Brigham Young are the teams to beat in the Mountain West Conference, Alford believes the addition of transfers Drew Gordon from UCLA and Emanuel Negedu of Tennessee will make his team competitive. Gordon is 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds while Negedu is 6-7, 220.
New Mexico was more of a finesse team last season with the all-around brilliance of Darington Hobson and the outside shooting of Roman Martinez. Both are departed, Hobson leaving early for the NBA. Now, Gordon and Negedu give the Lobos a presence down on the blocks.
"We're going to be able to pound the ball inside when we want to," Alford said. "It's going to make a difference."
Virginia Newcomers Could Play Big Roles
Virginia has seven freshmen on the roster, six of whom are scholarship players, showing the fruits of coach Tony Bennett's first full year to recruit. The Cavaliers could use the help after going 15-16 in Bennett's first season, including a nine-game losing streak late in the regular season.
Bennett says he is not afraid to use any of the freshmen. The one most likely to make an impact is 6-9 forward James Johnson.
"There's not one guy in our program that's going, 'Well, I'm going to be on the end of the bench this year and not going to play,'" Bennett said. "I think if you ask every one of them, they all feel like they're going to have a chance to contribute, and that's the way you want it."
Bennett says the determining factor in playing time will be defense. Johnson found that message to be true during the first minutes of the first practice.
"I realized that was the big thing, that you've got to play defense," Johnson said. "Transferring from high school to this has been kind of rough, since this is more about footwork and spacing."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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