Another Close Exhibition Game

Well, this was a close one all game, but La Roche took a late surge to win by twelve in a thriller yesterday at the Pete. Oh, no, I’m not talking about the final score, but the fact that Sam Young, for a good portion of the game, was outscoring the entire La Roche team (when he was finally taken out after 20 minutes of play, the score was SY 18, LR 17). There is really nothing to gauge from this game other than that these Panthers are bored and ready to play some real talent. La Roche was nowhere near able to match the talent, size, athleticism, or basketball know-how that Pitt was putting on the floor. Jermaine Dixon had a solid game with 11 points, 7 assists (to only one turnover), 5 steals, and 3 rebounds, and I would presume he’ll get the starting spot on Friday over Brad Wanamaker. Quite a few players on Pitt’s side made some poor decisions on the offensive end, but I believe that comes more from toying around with a vastly inferior opponent than lack of basketball skill or knowledge. I know a lot of the Zoo gets very antsy watching their team win by 50, and I know we’re all happy that a decent team will be coming in on Friday, but I’ll have more on Fairleigh Dickinson later this week.

We’ve got some exciting stuff coming soon on the blog- interviews have been conducted with both Agnus Berenato and Jamie Dixon, so those will be published shortly, as will a short season preview and some more news and updates from your Zoo Blog staff! Remember, if you feel like emailing us about anything Panther Basketball: TheZooBlog@gmail.com

Schedule Revisions and Fan Fest 2008

Most of the times for the 2008-2009 schedule have come out, and I revised the schedule as so. For those of you who do not want to go find the link through the archives on the left, here it is. Nothing shocking- a lot of 7pm home games and a few Noon games on Sundays.

Pitt’s 5th Annual Fan Fest is this upcoming Sunday, October 26th. The official release on Pitt’s website can be found here, but I’ll spare you the reading for the important times:

-12:30pm: Autographs with the Men’s and Women’s teams (and coaches) in the lobby/concourse

-1:25pm: Women’s team scrimmage

-1:50pm: Men’s team scrimmage

Admission is free, so I’m hoping to see a lot of the Zoo there to take a first look at both the men’s and women’s teams, and I’ll use this as my basis for my season preview, which will come between the Fan Fest and the exhibition game against Seton Hill on November 2nd.

Media Day!

Pitt had their annual basketball media day today, and I was lucky enough to be in attendance, along with various other members of the Pittsburgh and national media. The session started off with Agnus Berenato and three members of her Sweet-16 women’s basketball team- Xenia Stewart, Shevonte Zellous, and Jania Sims. The theme of the press conference was “Team”: each of the three players was wearing a shirt that said “TEAM” on the back in capital letters with the word “me” in lower case underneath. They all commented on how even though Pitt beat Baylor and hung close with Stanford in the national tournament, they were left out of most preseason national rankings. When asked about the loss of All Big-East center Marcedes Walker, arguably the most important player in Pitt women’s basketball history, Agnus did acknowledge the loss of a great player but said that Pitt would now have to focus much more on perimeter play than interior play. Coach Berenato was also high on her freshman, especially 6’7″ center Pepper Wilson, a beast of an inside player who has looked very good in earlier workouts, and 6’3″ center Kate Popovec, who has been staying an hour after most practices to work on her conditioning and her shooting.

Jania Sims was very excited to be back, saying “Now that I’m back, we made a Sweet Sixteen, but we gotta make it further.” She’ll be running the point for the guard-heavy Panthers, and as Xenia Stewart said, “we feel that we need to bring everybody along with us..it’s about the program and where we want to take it.” This team has a lot of experience–losing Mallorie Winn and Marcedes Walker will certainly hurt– but Agnus has used her current players in many different positions, noting that senior Xenia Stewart played all five positions against Baylor, and this is a group of girls that “can post up and play straight up…we teach everybody everything.” We’ll do more women’s previews as the season approaches, but this is a team with something to prove, a team that feels they should have a target on their back but have taken a huge backseat to UConn and Rutgers, a seat they do not feel they deserve.

The men’s portion of the Media Day was much different- Jamie Dixon started out alone on the podium, talking for about twenty minutes about the expectations for this team. As the Pitt men’s team is one that is already ranked top-5 in many polls across the country, Dixon was trying to tone down expectations, saying instead that the games played would determine ranking. This is a fairly common statement for any team with such high rankings–obviously no one is going to come out and say “of course we’re fantastic,” it’s all about tampering expectations until they can be proven on the court. That being said, Jamie raved about his freshman class, saying that they’ve picked up very quickly in the preseason workouts, and he was excited to see how they would play in full workouts and scrimmages. Freshman Ashton Gibbs said that the more experienced players had been “bumping me around…I’m gettin used to it” so this should be an exciting class for Pitt. Levance Fields is out right now, and he said he would be out until December with the foot injury that had been bothering him since August. Travon Woodall is supposed to be the backup, though he’s currently sidelined with a mild concussion he sustained yesterday (along with a few lost teeth) and Ryan Tiesi would be the 3rd option at point guard. I wouldn’t be too concerned, I think having Travon study under Levance before the Big East schedule will be good long-term, and I don’t think we’ll see Tiesi start at the point on opening day. In other injury news, Gil Brown has been having some ankle issues, which Jamie said are fine at this point, but that ankle injuries are the sort that reappear throughout the season and Gil will have to play at slightly less than 100% at some points this season; Dwight Miller is also sidelined with a bruised heel, which has sidelined him for the last six weeks or so. I’ll write more in a few days with individual player quotes and reports, but a very positive media day for Pitt.

Super Seniors

This senior class has seen a lot in their 4 years at Pitt- the emergence of Aaron Gray, the rise of Pitt to a national power, and now some incredibly high expectations in two out of the last three years in Oakland. Levance Fields, Sam Young, and Tyrell Biggs are all going to see huge amounts of playing time and are the three most important players on this team. A possible Bob Cousy award winner, Big East player of the year, and Big East 6th man of the year respectively, Levance, Sam, and Tyrell are going to have to carry this team throughout a long, tough Big East conference schedule and hopefully to the Sweet 16 and beyond.

#2 Levance Fields (PG, Xaverian HS)- Levance is one of the top point guards in the Big East, if not the entire country, and he proved his worth time and time again in the 2007-2008 season. While he might be best remembered for his game-winning shot against Duke last December, when he proclaimed “I did it for myself, I did it for this team, and I did it for the city of Pittsburgh,” Levance was invaluable during the Panthers run through the Big East tournament. After recovering from a broken foot against Dayton, he lead the Panthers to a few critical wins against Syracuse and Cincinnati to secure an NCAA berth before the Big East tournament. Setting a Pitt season record for assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.18, Levance will be counted on more than ever to run what will be an incredibly explosive Pitt offense. He’ll be relied on less for his scoring this year than in years before, with offensive forces Blair, Young, Brown, and Wanamaker in the starting lineup besides him, and should gather between 6-8 assists per game. Levance has never had double-digit assists in a game before, and I expect that to change very quickly this season. Incredibly good at feeding the ball into the low post for our big men as well as running the fast break, his skill at dictating tempo and understanding this offense is one of the top three reasons Pitt will be ranked in most preseason top-5s. I’m not even going to predict most of Levance’s statistics- he will start every game he is healthy for, will get into the double digits in points or assists based on how his team is performing, and will be one of the best point guards in the country this year. He might not be the biggest player on the court but he’s certainly got the ability to carry the whole team on his back when they need him to.

#5 Tyrell Biggs (PF/C, Don Bosco Prep)- Depending on who you talk to, Tyrell will either be our starter at PF or our sixth man, just as he was last year. I’m not a huge fan of playing experience over skill, and I think Tyrell is a much better sixth man than a starter at PF. Sam Young definitely doesn’t have typical PF size, but he proved last year the mismatches he creates on the outside are better than the size disadvantage he creates. Tyrell is a fantastic 6th man- he’s capable of playing big minutes at both the 4 and the 5, running the floor with the Pitt offense of new or playing half-court like the Pitt teams of 2005 and 2006, rebounding, passing, and he’s now added a mid-range jumper to his arsenal. Tyrell was 3rd on the team in rebounding last year in averaging 20 minutes per game off the bench, and I think having that 6th man mentality is a good thing to have. It’s sort of like baseball’s version of a closer—some players are just better at coming off the bench than they are at starting. I think against really tall teams we might see Biggs start at the 4, but his minutes will be consistent no matter if he starts or comes off the bench. Tyrell is this year’s Keith Benjamin- a seasoned starter who is not expected to start but would fill in more than adequately for anything he is called upon to do.

#23 Sam Young (SF/PF, Hargrove Military Academy)- What is there to say about Sam Young that hasn’t been said already? Big East first team, All-American honorable mention, Big East Most Improved Player, Pitt MVP, Big East Tournament MVP and budding superstar for this Panthers program, Sam took his game to new heights last year, his first as a starter after taking a backseat to Levon Kendall his sophomore year, the year that many Pitt fans saw glimpses of the brilliance of Sam’s 2007-2008 season. When Sam made his decision to return to Pitt following last year instead of trying for the NBA, Pitt was immediately included in the discussion for the top 5 teams in the country. Sure, he had some times where his defense was a little lacking, and sometimes it was a bit of a scare when he put the ball on the ground too much, but his beautiful shot-fake and great athletic ability more than made up for his misgivings. Sam has the unique ability to literally take over a game on both ends of the court- make a huge block on defense, pull in the rebound, then take the ball up court and energize (or silence) an entire stadium with a thunderous dunk or drain the ball from beyond the arc. He can use his athletic ability to defend players a few inches above his 6’6” frame, an assest that will serve him well in the NBA. This summer, Sam’s been working on his shooting range and his dribble, adding another facet to his already deadly offensive arsenal. The senior most likely to be drafted by the NBA, Sam has to prove this season that he’s capable of playing the 3 as well as the 4, so I’d expect to see him switch down to the SF position at times instead of just taking a seat on the bench when Tyrell comes into the game. He could easily average 20 points per game this season, though the amount of offensive weapons on this team could keep that to a more realistic 17 points, depending on the minutes and injuries to the rest of the team. I’d expect a solid block, steal, and 7 rebounds per game from Sam, his versatility one of the main reasons he’s so dangerous all over the court. Sam Young by himself is a reason to go to see a Pitt Panthers basketball game, and he rounds out this incredible Pitt senior class.

This is the last post in my season preview by class, and I’ll put up my thoughts on the Pitt team both before and after Media Day (October 16th, next Thursday) in preperation for November 4th’s season opener. This year we’re going to have some interesting analysis on our games, helped out by students and writers from other schools, so keep tuned to the Oakland Zoo! Also, we’re still looking for emails at TheZooBlog@gmail.com so keep those emails coming!

Sophomore/Junior Preview (Part 2)

For the third instillation of my season class-by-class preview, I’ll be writing about the redshirt sophomores- Gil Brown, Tim Frye, Austin Wallace and Ryan Tiesi, as well as our true junior, Jermaine Dixon. This will be a fairly interesting group; the walk-ons won’t see too much playing time but Brown and Dixon should be huge contributors this year.

# 3 Jermaine Dixon (PG/SG- Tallahassee CC)- Jermaine is the biggest unknown quantity on the Panthers this year. After the flop of JUCO transfer Cassin Diggs last year, quite a few people are willing to give Dixon the benefit of the doubt, despite his acclaim as a first team All-JUCO All-American, as well as scoring over 1,000 points in just two years. While I’m hoping Dixon is a huge addition in terms of leadership and scoring ability, I don’t think he will end up getting the start at the two-guard unless he shows a quick ability to learn the Panther offense and fit into Jamie’s system. I do think he will get some playing time at the beginning of the year to prove himself- he is a career 43.9% shooter, not a bad number for a 2-guard, so I think he will see 20 or so minutes a game, at least in the early portion of the non-conference part of the season. He should spend the majority of the year splitting minutes with Brad Wanamaker at the SG position, hopefully averaging 8 or 9 points per game in 20 or so minutes with a few assists and rebounds thrown in. He’s said to be a very physical guard, which is a good thing for the Panthers, he just has to adjust to not being the main option in the offense (maybe not even the 2nd or 3rd option in the offense) and play into Jamie’s style of basketball, and he’ll be a great pickup for the Panthers.

#11 Gilbert Brown (SG/SF, South Kent Prep)- In my opinion, Gil Brown is the most important player to this 2008-2009 Pitt basketball team. I’m not saying he’s going to be the MVP or will lead the team in scoring, rebounding, or assists, but he’s got huge shoes to fill and a lot of expectations to live up to. I’m hoping Gil plays the wing for the Panthers this year- he showed a lot of promise last season at the position, and I’m not so sure yet he’s got the shooting skills to be a 2-guard yet, though he’s still got three years of eligibility left. I’d rather use his athleticism at the wing, letting him get some rebounds and put-backs with his 38-inch vertical. Gil only shot 24% from 3-point range last year, going nearly two months without making one from beyond the arc before he buried two critical treys in the comeback win at Syracuse. He averaged 22 minutes per game last year and I think that will approach 30 this year, with averages of 12 points and 5 rebounds and assists per game very realistic. He’s not the kind of player to foul out (only doing so once last season) so big minutes are a reality for Gil. He’s got to step up to replace Mike Cook, who was a real glue guy for Pitt in the last few years, and contribute all across the board with some explosive drives on the offensive end as well as his continually improving defense, using his athleticism to protect the perimeter and even contribute a few blocks and steals. I see Gil as a potential Big East Most Improved Player and a huge dark horse candidate to lead this team this year.

#0 Austin Wallace (PF/C, La Salle Academy)- Austin fractured his kneecap before the Washington St. game and is expected to be out this entire year, as well as possibly a part of the 2009-2010 season. Unfortunately for the Panthers, it is possible that “A-Wall” is finished his basketball career, as the knee injury he experienced is extraordinarily tough to recover from. Add in the fact that he would be a redshirt junior two years removed from playing basketball and competing against Blair, McGhee, as well as incoming freshmen Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna, and JJ Richardson for playing time, and I would be surprised to ever see Austin in a Pitt uniform. Hopefully he’ll continue to energize the team with his personality and humor, and maybe we’ll see him on the court one day down the road.

#21 Ryan Tiesi (SG, North Allegheny HS) and #24 Tim Frey (SG, Mars HS)- our two walk-ons, Ryan and Tim will most likely only see the court this year in the last minute or so of blowout wins, barring catastrophic injuries to the rest of this team. We have far too much depth on this team at guard to afford to give minutes to the walk-ons, though they tend to be fan favorites when they make it into the game and hit a basket.

Sophomore Preview (Part 1)

Pitt has a total of 6 sophomores (3 true, 1 redshirt, and 2 walk-ons) so I’ll preview the class in two parts: true sophomores (DeJuan Blair, Gary McGhee, Brad Wanamaker) and then the others (Gil Brown, Tim Frye, Ryan Tiesi) so as to not post 3 pages of material all at the same time. That being said, this sophomore class is incredibly strong, and links this Pitt squad from 2007 through 2011.

#22 Brad Wanamaker (SG, Roman Catholic HS)- Brad, the 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer Area Player of the Year, comes off an up-and-down freshman year where he showed flashes of the offensive force he was in high school. He stands at 6’4”, great size for a college 2-guard, and could be the starter this year, depending on if the Panthers run a big lineup (Blair, Biggs, Young, Brown, Fields) or small (Blair, Young, Brown, Wanamaker, Fields), as well as the preseason competition between Brad and incoming junior Jermaine Dixon. Either way, I expect Brad to see 15-20 minutes a game as the starter or first guard off the bench, a similar position to what Keith Benjamin played last year before the injuries to Cook and Fields. He has experience, playing 10.6 minutes per game during the Big East portion of the schedule, largely during Field’s injury time, but those minutes will prove huge during this season. This is a player who averaged close to 18 points per game his senior year at Roman Catholic, and I could see Brad averaging close to 10 points this year. He had some times last season where he really showed some offensive and defensive skill, using a great penetration move to get to the hoop, as well as some great passing ability. He definitely looked a little nervous at some points but I expect his confidence and his game to grow by leaps and bounds as he enters his 2nd year in the Big East.

#45 DeJuan Blair (PF/C, Schenley HS)- If you haven’t heard by now about DeJuan Blair, Pitt’s super frosh from last season, then you probably haven’t been following this basketball team too closely. Expected to start off on the bench last season, Blair quickly showed during preseason that his skill, athleticism, and love for the game were too much to be behing JUCO transfer Cassin Diggs on the depth chart. A consensus freshman All-American as well as Big East co-Rookie of the Year, Blair wowed in his debut against Houston Baptist with 20 points, 14 rebounds (including a Pitt record of 10 offensive boards) and 4 steals, a great number for a center. His obvious love for the game made him an easy fan favorite as well. He had an even better game against national power Duke at Madison Square Garden, putting in 15 points while grabbing 20 rebounds, showing the country just how good he is. Blair is the clear starter for Pitt at center, though an eventual move to power forward could be in his future, seeing as a 6’7” center won’t cut it in the NBA. He averaged nearly a double-double (11.6 points, 9.1 rebounds) last year and I expect to see that up to 15 points and 12 rebounds a game as he learns how to stay out of foul trouble and use his wide body to open up the lane. A possible All-American this year, Blair will be a huge key to Pitt’s success in the physical Big East, and I don’t see him disappointing anybody.

#55 Gary McGhee (C, Highland Senior HS)- The career leader for rebounds in the state of Indiana at the time of his graduation, Gary is a developing prospect with great size for the Big East and a nose for the ball. Gary often came off the bench in games for 8-12 minutes, averaging 1.5 rebounds and 1.5 points in his short stints, but showed flashes of an Aaron Gray-esque center in his playing time. While not known for his offensive prowess, Gary could see time alongside DeJuan Blair if Jamie wants to get some real height in the game, though I see the majority of Gary’s minutes coming when Blair rests, as we don’t have too much depth at the 4/5 positions (Tyrell Biggs being our only other true big man). Gary’s playing time, however, rests solely on his progress as a basketball player- his team did win the Pittsburgh Summer League this year, and he’ll have plenty of time in the non-conference to prove his worth, but I can’t see Gary getting a huge amount of minutes this year. I think another year of 10 or so minutes per game is what he’s looking at, as both Biggs and Blair will eat up the majority of minutes at the PF and C position, when Sam Young isn’t in the game. If he shows the ability to get 4-5 points and 4-5 rebounds consistently in those 10 minutes, then his playing time will increase. Remember, it took Aaron Gray until his junior year to really hit the national spotlight, and I feel Gary McGhee is taking a similar path.

Freshman Preview 2008-2009

This year, Pitt welcomes four true freshman to it’s basketball team: guards Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall, wing Nasir Robinson, and PF Dwight Miller. All four should push for playing time sooner rather than later, and this class will combine with the strong classes of ’07 and ’09 to get this Panther basketball team staying in the top 25 (and higher) for the next four to five years, at least. Here’s a little preview of each of these fantastic four, and my expectations for them this year.

#1 Travon Woodall (PG, St. Anthony’s HS)- Travon comes into Pitt after playing the point for the top high school basketball team in the country last year, St. Anthony’s in New Jersey. His high school boasts six players currently playing D1 basketball, all at great programs. He’s small for a point guard, only 5’11”, but will spend his first year under another small PG, Levance Fields, who’s done fairly well for himself running the Panthers offense. This year I expect to see Travon get a fair amount of playing time early on in the year as Levance comes back from his foot injury, and will see 8-12 minutes a game late into the season as he prepares to run this team in the 2009-2010 season. A quick guard with great court vision and ball-handling skills, he’ll be able to learn a lot from Fields and I think he’ll be a great player for this program all four years he’s here.

#12 Ashton Gibbs (PG/SG, Seton Hall Prep)- Ashton, a 6’2” combo guard was brought to Pitt for his scoring ability, especially in one area the Panthers have struggled in a bit- shooting the three. The defending New Jersey state champion from beyond the arc, Ashton will contribute immediately with his long range shooting, as well as taking a few minutes helping out Travon Woodall at the point early in the year. Ashton long-term projects as a solid college 2-guard alongside of Woodall, and I see him as a Ronny Ramon type player with more offensive skill and better size at the shooting guard position. I think as the year goes on, we’ll see Ashton in a solid 12-15 minutes a game solely because of his shooting ability, with that number possibly fluctuating a bit due to the intangibles he’ll bring to the team. If he proves he can play Pitt defense that number could be 15/game, if shooting is his only strength right now he might only get 6-10 minutes in the Big East portion of the schedule.

#25 Dwight Miller (PF, St. Pius X HS/Nassau, Bahamas)- Dwight, Pitt’s first player from the Bahamas since Doyle Hudson (2005-2007), is the most intriguing player of this freshman class: great size for a PF (6’8”, 220 lbs.), but he’s only played competitive basketball for about four years. Despite this, he was named most outstanding player at the ReebokU Camp in 2007 and drew rave reviews for his raw basketball ability. This could be in large part to his tutor- NBA Hall-of-Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who took Dwight under his wing during his senior season and taught him quite a bit. Over the summer, Dwight proved himself very well in the Pittsburgh Summer Leagues, so I’m going to say Jamie will give him some minutes early in the year to see how he responds. I originally thought that Dwight would get a redshirt this year, but if he really is improving as quickly as reports are saying, he could find himself playing a solid 10 minutes off the bench to relieve Tyrell Biggs and Gary McGhee, and will be in the big man rotation in 2009 after Biggs graduates.

#35 Nasir Robinson (SG/SF, Chester High School)- Nasir, the highest-rated player in this class, comes in to Pitt with a great basketball attitude, something that will serve him well in the years he plays here. Only 6’6”, he tended to play wing in high school but could project to a Mike Cook-esque wing player as early as his sophomore year. He’s gotten rave reviews for his style of play- team oriented, Nasir (“Helper” in Arabic) is just as comfortable taking a team on his back and scoring 25 points as he is chipping in with rebounds and assists, an attitude the school and Jamie Dixon will love. I think that Nasir will get the most minutes in this freshman class- as the primary backup to Sam Young and Gil Brown at the SF position, he could see 20-25 minutes a year if he lives up to his high school billing. He’s known Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall since the 7th grade, playing on an AAU team with Travon, so that established chemistry could lead to some great things when that young group is on the court together. Nasir lead his HS team (Chester HS, home to Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson) to the Pennsylvania Quad-A state championship last year, so success is nothing new to him, and that winning attitude will be a great asset for this ball club.