Good News on the Injury Front

Not too much news on the basketball front at this point in the year- still focused on college football for the next bit of the calendar, but Pitt basketball does start practice on October 17th, a date that will approach much faster than everybody realizes. We’ve had a little bit of bad news emerge in the last few days- Levance Fields needed a second surgery on his right foot. For those of you new to Pitt hoops, Levance broke his foot last season during the Dayton loss, and was out for about two months, coming back to help lead the Panthers to the Big East Tournament Title.

Levance, though, will still be back well before the Big East portion of our schedule hits- probably starting in early January- and now could possibly be back even sooner than we first imagined. Levance is one of the best point guards in the country, and he will be counted on to really push the tempo of this Pitt offense and get the best looks for Sam, DeJuan, and the rest of this incredibly athletic and talented Pitt squad. Keep checking back with The Oakland Zoo; with the season approaching, we’re going to start putting up some interviews, player spotlights, and season previews very regularly.

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Mike Cook and Moving On

As some of you might know by now, Mike Cook has been denied a 6th year of eligibility by the NCAA. I have to say that, especially after the Ben Mauk situation with Cincinnati a few weeks ago, I wasn’t too surprised that Cook was turned down. The key here was that he played in 11 out of the 32 “qualifying” games (our 6 postseason games turn into 1 when determining a medical redshirt), when he would have had to play in only 10 in order to qualify for the medical redshirt. All I see this as is just another example of the NCAA turning a blind eye to the situation and just going by the rules to make their decision. A disappointing situation for Mike, definitely, but the school has said that if he wishes to continue his studies at the University, they will allow him to do so.

The one thing that most people seem to be forgetting right now is that we have a really good small forward who played a large part in winning the Big East title last year. Gil Brown will be a redshirt sophomore this year and I think he could be up for pulling a Sam Young and win Most Improved Player in the Big East. He’s got a 3-point shot (I know it was very sketchy last year so was Sam Young’s two years ago), the athletic ability to really take the ball to the hoop as well as push it on the fast break, and can play some really solid defense. He went through some growing pains, certainly, but I think this should be a huge year for Gil. If not him, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Brad Wanamaker really step up this year. He had a great game in high school and, while flashes of it showed last year, he’s going to really wow fans at some point with a much more complete basketball game than we witnessed in his few appearances.

I never want to say that losing a player of Cook’s caliber, leadership, and integrity is a good thing, but this case certainly does have a silver lining. We have a great basketball player in Gil Brown waiting to step into the starting lineup, as well as some talented freshmen (Ashton Gibbs, Nasir Robinson) and sophomores (Brad Wanamaker) to step in, get some experience, and play some real Pitt basketball.

Ashton Gibbs Interview

Through a series of lucky circumstances, we at the Oakland Zoo were lucky enough to get an interview with Ashton Gibbs, a 6’1″ combo guard out of Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey. The versatile three-point threat is coming to Pitt next year as a member of Jamie Dixon’s solid 2008 recruiting class, and we got to chat a little with him about his basketball career so far. Here’s the highlights:

Oakland Zoo: So, what drew you to Pitt?
Ashton Gibbs: The loyalty that the coaches showed, they’ve been recruiting me since freshman year. Also, the balance of academics and athletics.

OZ: Are you excited to play for Jamie Dixon?
AG: Yea, I’m really excited. He’s down to earth and easy to talk to, but he seems like he can get the most out of you, especially on the defensive side.

OZ: You’ve been to a few games at the Pete?
AG: Yea, I only went to the exhibition versus IUPUI but it was a crazy atmosphere. The fans are ridiculous.
OZ: We try.
AG: (Laughs)

OZ: Have you heard at all about the rivalry with West Virginia?
AG: Yea, I heard it’s a crazy rivalry, but I haven’t heard too much yet. The two games this year were very tough and crazy games, though.

OZ: So, looking back on your high school career, what stands out the most for you?
AG: I think the all-time leading scoring record [at Seton Hall Prep] and my freshman year, winning the TOC (Tournament of Champions) Championship- we worked hard, and we got the title.

OZ: Looking at the other members of the class of 2008, specifically the other true freshmen (Nasir Robinson, Travon Woodall, and Dwight Miller), how do you see yourself fitting in with them?
AG: I think I can fit in well. Travon and I are close friends and have played with each other already, while I played with Dwight over the summer at the Rbk U (Reebok University camps), and have played against Nasir as well. They are all good, tough players who should thrive in the Pitt system with myself.

OZ: Where do you see yourself fitting in this upcoming year? Pitt’s losing our top three-point threat in Ronald Ramon, do you see yourself stepping up in that aspect?
AG: Yea I think I’m similar to him because we are good three point shooters- plus, I could always help out at the point as well- so I should fit in well.

OZ: Alright, enough with the tough stuff. What kind of music do you like?
AG: Rap and R&B
OZ: Favorite artist(s)?
AG: Jay-Z

OZ: Who would you say is your hero?
AG: My mom, because she’s done so much for me and never complains.

OZ: Do you have a favorite NBA player?
AG: Dwayne Wade and Ben Gordon.

All in all, Ashton was a great kid to talk too and I’m sure all of us in the Zoo are excited to watch him grow and mature as a Pitt Panther. Much thanks to him for letting me grill him for a few, and hopefully we’ll be able to bring you some more previews of the 2008 recruiting class as the summer goes on.

Player Spotlight: Ronald Ramon

After the road win over Cincinnati this week, obviously most of the attention the team is getting is going toward their guards. This first Player Spotlight will shine on Junior guard, Ronald Ramon.

Now in his third year with the Panthers, Ronald needs little introduction. Coming in as a freshman he entertained everyone with his lights-out shooting. As a sophomore we saw him take over the starting point guard position, while Carl Krauser moved to the shooting guard for his senior year. Now, many wonder why Ronald is sitting on the bench at tip-off.

Since the start of the Big East season, Ronald has obviously begun to understand his role on the team. Throughout the season, Ronald has put up better statistics than his career average in every category except steals and turnovers, even while playing fewer minutes. As exciting as that is, since starting conference play, he has improved even more.

He is averaging 11.7 ppg while shooting 57.5% in seven conference meetings. Not only is that a 13% improvement, his 3-point percentage numbers are up to an astonishing 60.7%, with only 44.3% in the non-conference season.

Now that Pitt fans everywhere are once again knocking the Panthers’ freethrow ability, Ronald is hitting a career high 86.4% in conference play. He is also drawing two more fouls per game. Listening on the radio after the loss to Marquette, I heard a number of people comment that with Carl’s departure, Pitt lacks anyone for that “go-to-guy” spot in the final moments of the game. I also recall an article in the Post-Gazette that claimed that Pitt’s shooters were accurate, but not confident.

You may question Dixon’s choice of Ronald starting on the bench, but think about what his new role is. When you have a guy who is hitting over 60% from the arc, drawing fouls and hitting over 85% of those freethrows, who else would you want in those last few seconds remaining in a close game? Ronald is turning out to be the type of clutch player about whom most teams can only dream. I don’t know what Ronald’s opinion about the starting job is, but I am willing to bet he is getting more comfortable every day. For years Pitt has lacked any real outside presence, and with Antonio, Levance, and Ronald all knocking them down like they are, add in Aaron, and now you have a team with some really intimidating offensive options.

While I will enjoy Pitt winning by double-digit margins, I am quite excited for tournament time, watching Ronald take the reins of this team, and pulling out some close victories on the road to the Final Four.