The End of the Beginning

So ends the season of the 2007-2008 Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball team, but this ending feels different than last year. Last year, we all knew that Aaron Gray, Levon Kendall, and Antonio Graves had all played their last games in a Pitt jersey, and much uncertainty remained for next year. Who would start at center? Would Sam Young be able to fill in at power forward? Who could take over this team? How would the Panthers handle putting a small lineup on the court? Much doubt and uncertainty was over the team, and the Panthers were picked by many to have a competitive rebuilding year. Yet, by December 20th, in Madison Square Garden, the Panthers showed they had rebuilt in a matter of weeks, not months. Then, yet again, the Panthers suffered huge setbacks- the loss of Mike Cook and Levance Fields. The questions again sprung up- could this team survive the Big East with the loss of two skilled, and experienced, players? Gil Brown, Brad Wanamaker, Gary McGhee, and Ronald Ramon were put into a trial-by-fire, winning huge games against Georgetown and WVU while losing to the likes of Rutgers and Cincinnati.

So now we look back at the season that was Pittsburgh basketball. For a team that was supposed to rebuild, we went 27-10. For a team supposed to not be able to compete with the country’s cream of the crop, we scored impressive wins against Washington, Duke, Oklahoma State, Georgetown (twice), Louisville, Marquette, Villanova, and Syracuse. We went up to New York City and brought back the unlikeliest of Big East Conference championships, and this team showed more heart, more resiliency, and more guts than ANY other team in the country. Ronald Ramon, Keith Benjamin, and Mike Cook gave this school and this city more in their senior years than any class in recent memory had. Their contributions are far too many to list here, and I know every Pitt fan will remember the #s 4, 1, and 31 with positive memories. While these Panthers were beaten by MSU in their last game, we all saw the incredible effort they left out on the court. Sure, the shots weren’t falling, but this was a team that had played 4 games in 4 days against the toughest competition in the country. Michigan State, on the other hand, got bounced in the 2nd round of their tournament and had much more time to rest. I’m not saying this is an excuse, but when you think about what the Panthers have had to go through, there is no shame in losing to an experienced MSU team like we did.

But like I said, unlike last year, this isn’t an end in any means, except the end of a beautiful beginning. We all got to witness the emergence of Gilbert Brown, and every Pitt fan knows he will be a fantastic ball player for us next year. We saw the growing pains of DeJuan Blair, and while he had the usual freshman ups and downs (certainly more ups), I know that next season will show Blair as an even more mature and skilled post player, and make this team even more dangerous. We will have Levance Fields in his senior season, a tough floor leader with something to prove, and the skills to make this team great. We have Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee, two freshmen who saw playing time this year that will be invaluable in the next two or three years, and I see those two (especially Brad) making huge contributions to this team next year. The one question in this offseason is the fate of #23- Sam Young. He was clearly the most improved player on this team, and there are those who think he will declare for the NBA next year. If he does, Tyrell Biggs will start at the 4, and we’ll become a little bit more of a half-court team again. If he doesn’t, we retain a huge dimension of our fast-break offense, and this team becomes a possible preseason top-10 team. Even if Sam does go, I don’t see this team suffering too much. Not that I’m downplaying Sam’s role, he was brilliant for us. I think, though, that if we can lose Aaron, Levon, and Antonio and still go 27-10, we will be able to lose Sam Young and start to fill his hole with the likes of Gil Brown and incoming freshman Nasir Robinson.

Next year’s team will be interesting to watch, this is for certain. We’re getting a 6’6″ SF/PF out of Chester, PA, that has been nothing but praised all year for his work on the offensive AND defensive ends, a player that has been forced to carry his teams at time but is just as comfortable playing hard-nosed defense, getting to the boards, and scoring when called upon to score. I can’t see Nasir Robinson being anything but a huge positive for this team next year, and I must say I’m very excited to see him put on a Pitt uniform. We’re getting a small point guard from the top team in the country, St. Anthony’s (NJ) to come back up Levance Fields, and I think Travon Woodall will excel in a freshman season learning under Fields, and will be more than ready to lead this team in 2009-2010. We’re getting a 6’2″ combo guard from Seton Hall prep capable of shooting from anywhere on the court, and Ashton Gibbs will be a three-point threat for the Panthers for the next for years, filling the role of Ronald Ramon and then some. We also get a JUCO transfer in Jeremaine Dixon who will add some size and leadership to this team, as well as a maturing PF in Dwight Miller that will be an interesting project for Jamie Dixon, but I’m also excited about his huge upside. N

Next year, I see this team going with a 9-man rotation, and I’m going to assume that Sam Young is coming back. I don’t see this as anywhere near a guarantee, and he certainly could go, but for intents and purposes I’m going to say he’ll return for his senior year until he says otherwise. We’ll have Levance starting at the point, backed up by Travon with a preseason battle between Brad and Jermaine for the 2 guard. Gil Brown will definitely start at small forward, backed up by Nasir Robinson. Sam will play the 4, backed up by Tyrell Biggs, and DeJuan will again start at the 5, backed up by Gary McGhee. I’m guessing that either Cassin or Austin will be given a scholarship exemption for medical reasons- and let’s face it, while we appreciate Cassin’s effort, Gary is the future backup at center. I think Dwight Miller and Ashton Gibbs will redshirt, as we already have depth at the guard positions. This gives us versatility to go small for a lineup (Levance, Brad, Gil, Sam, and Nasir), or big (Brad, Jermaine, Sam, Tyrell, DeJuan) and many other combinations in between. We could have as many as four slashers on the court at the same time, and will have the ability to give our opponents fits with defensive matchups. There is much reason for optimism for next year’s Panther squad, and writing about it certainly gives me hope for the future. We’ll keep posting over the summer with various bits and pieces about Panther basketball, and all of us will prepare for a fantastic 2008-2009 season.

Hail to Pitt

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2 Responses to “The End of the Beginning”

  1. Keith McBride Says:

    All year I have compared this season to our season 3 years ago. We had Troutman, Krauser, and Taft all poised to make a great run.Starting off the year we won 10 games. We lost an depressing game against Bucknell as our lone non-conf black mark. The first conference game of the year was another loss courtesy of the rebuilding Hoyas.All season the Panthers struggled. We would be given fits against bad teams (nearly lost at Rutgers, lost on senior night) and pulled off huge wins (at UConn, at BC, and vs Syracuse).In what was my first year in the Zoo, I made the pilgrimage to Madison Square Garden to be part of Pitt’s perennial success in the tourney. We lost our only game there.Following a late-season struggle, the Panthers were placed halfway across the country for their first round NCAA game. We lost to Pacific.As one announcer said this weekend, nearly every team in the NCAA finishes their season with a loss. That is just how the game works. We didn’t finish this season losing 4 games in a row. We didn’t bow out in the first round of either tournament. Our guys put together one of the most entertaining streaks I have ever seen.People seem to forget that this is a team that could have easily ended up in the NIT were it not for our two seniors holding things together. You could surely place some blame for yesterday’s loss in the hands of Ronald and Keith, but the way both of them played in the BET makes them idols in my eyes.Keith and Ronald will finish their careers 4-4 in the NCAA.In that time, Syracuse has gone 0-2.In the past two seasons, Pitt has gone 3-2.In the past two years, UConn is 0-1.In the past two years, Duke is 1-2.Don’t go kill yourself over this loss. Pitt wouldn’t be Pitt if you couldn’t be sure that next year will be just as exciting.

  2. Michael Says:

    i’m sure you’ve heard that this year was supposed to be different. we were better, stronger. i truly believed that. and if we pulled off that miracle in the big east tourny then we should have been able to go further. fields went down after cook and we all thought our season was over. it wasnt and we eventually clawed our way to the 4 seed, the hard way. what hurts so badly is that this year i truly believed in our players. i thought we could make a better run than our 3 seed team last year. i understand all the positives that came out of this season, but it still hurts just as badly.


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