NEW YORK – In terms of winning percentage in the last decade, only Kansas and Duke can compare to Pittsburgh.
What separates the Panthers from the upper echelon of basketball powers, though, is the lack of Final Four appearances and national championships. They have reached the Sweet 16 five times in the last 11 seasons, but only advanced past there once. That happened in 2009, when Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds went coast-to-coast to knock off Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight.
“It hangs over our head,” senior guard Ashton Gibbs said. “The fact is, we built a tradition like this. Everyone is looking at us.”
“It’s a motivator,” senior Nick Rivers added. “We haven’t reached our goal yet, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop trying to reach it.”
|Season tips Nov. 7|
Heading into this season, Jamie Dixon’s troops are on track for another 25-30-win season, ranking No. 10 in the CBSSports.com Preseason Top 25 (and one). They return seven of their top 10 players from last year, when Pittsburgh won 28 games and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament before suffering a heartbreaking loss to Butler in the second round.
Moreover, the Panthers bring in one of the best recruiting classes in the country, including five-star big man Khem Birch.
“We’re good enough to win a national title,” Gibbs said.
It all starts with Gibbs in the backcourt. The preseason Big East Player of the Year decided to return to Pitt for his senior season, and is ready to shoulder a bigger load with Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee all moving on from last season’s group.
Gibbs is one of the top 3-point shooters in the country, knocking down nearly 47 percent of his long-range shots en route to a 16.7 ppg clip.
“He’s gotten better each year,” Dixon said. “It’s more of the same.”
Replacing Wanamaker on the perimeter will be a combination of players. Travon Woodall, who was second on the team in assists last season, will help Gibbs at the point guard position, while junior Lamar Patterson and redshirt freshman Cameron Wright are also getting rave reviews for their work so far in practices.
Up front, senior Nasir Robinson returns as a starter – but he will miss three more weeks with a torn meniscus in his knee. Juniors Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor are expected to take a major step forward this season.
With so many players fighting for spots, practices have been filled with energy and hustle.
“There’s a lot of intensity, like I’ve never experienced before,” Rivers said. “It’s wide open. There are a lot of good players. It’s going to depend on who’s consistent, who listens and who works hard.
“We’re a matchup nightmare. You never know who you’re going to have to play against.”
The key for Pittsburgh could be the arrival of Birch. Originally a class of 2012 recruit, Birch decided to reclassify to 2011 last November and play at Pittsburgh this fall. The 6-foot-9 Canadian was one of the best big men in the high school ranks last season, and will look to make an immediate impact.
“He has a great motor, runs the court really well,” Gibbs said, also mentioning fellow freshman Malcolm Gilbert as an impact player. “We just have to see if he lives up to the hype.”
Pittsburgh will be versatile, deep, talented and hungry this season – a difficult combination for most opponents.
Of course, the Panthers will also be as physical and tough as ever.
“We’re going to play Pitt basketball,” Robinson said.
This season, they hope that includes a Final Four berth.
Photo: US Presswire