September 6th, 2006
Basketball Preview: Pittsburgh
Once 7’0" senior center Aaron Gray decided to spurn the NBA and return to
college, Pittsburgh became the favorite to win the Big East. The Panthers
are the deepest team in the league as Coach Jamie Dixon’s “second five”
would be extremely competitive playing against some other conference
Gray is one of the top
two centers in the league. He was the only player in the conference last
year to average a double-double (13.6 ppg and 10.3 rpg), and his stats
will likely improve in 2006-2007. Despite being slow and a bit cumbersome,
he's so big and so strong it’s nearly impossible to keep him away from the
basket. He does have to improve his touch around the hoop as he missed an
inordinate number of two and three-footers. His shooting percentage should
be at least 60% rather than the 53% it was a year ago. Gray also needs to
improve his accuracy from the free throw line. Given the frequency with
which he’s fouled, he needs to raise last season’s percentage of 63%.
Power forward Levon Kendall, 6'9", is a solid complementary player. He's
not spectacular or flashy, but he plays tough defense and is a decent
rebounder (5.3 rpg in 23.9 mpg). He doesn’t look to score, but he can hit
the open shot (50% from the field). Plus, he and Gray have developed nice
chemistry. They do an excellent job of anticipating what the other is
going to do.
Both of Pitt's back-ups
on the interior would get major playing time on most other teams in the
league. Power forward Sam Young, 6’6”, is extremely talented. He averaged
8.1 ppg and 4.4 rpg in slightly over 20 mpg. He’s an excellent athlete who
combines quickness, strength, and leaping ability with an aggressive
attitude that leads to his playing considerably taller than his height. At
times, he is almost impossible to stop around the basket. Young would
probably start on at least half the teams in the conference.
Having Tyrell Biggs as a back-up at the 5 is a luxury. Unfortunately for
him, he’s stuck behind Gray for another year, so he may again get fewer
than 10 mpg. Biggs displayed flashes of his potential his freshman
season. He has a soft touch from mid-range, he’s surprisingly nimble for
a big man, and he’s quick enough to beat his man off the dribble. He can
also post up with his back to the basket and power his way to the hoop.
Every other team in the conference would love to have him on its roster.
The Panthers have five experienced guards to offset the loss of leading
scorer Carl Krauser. Ronald Ramon, who led the league in three-point
shooting percentage (50%) during the conference season, can play either
guard position. Besides being a proficient perimeter shooter, Ramon takes
excellent care of the ball as his 2.0/1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio
illustrates. He will again start in Dixon’s three-guard lineup.
Antonio Graves and Keith
Benjamin came off the bench last season and will again provide excellent
depth on the wings. The two combined for 33.8 mpg, 9.9 ppg, and 5.2 rpg. Of
the two, Benjamin is a better perimeter shooter (39% from behind the arc)
and a slightly stronger rebounder. However, Graves earned a couple of
minutes more per game due to his commitment to defense. Should one of the
Panthers’ starting guards go down with an injury, either one would be a more
than adequate replacement.
The player I expect to
have a breakout season is 5’10” sophomore point guard Levance Fields. He
averaged 6.7 ppg in 21.6 mpg last year coming off the bench. However, over
the last 10 games of the season, he scored in double figures six times and
scored nine points in two of the other four games. During that stretch he
averaged 9.9 ppg in 26.3 mpg, and he had 21 assists and only nine turnovers
for an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.3/1.0. He looked comfortable running
the offense, and he played aggressive man-to-man defense. Unless something
unforeseen happens, Fields will start at point for the Panthers, and he
could be a candidate for Most Improved Player in the conference.
The "icing" on Pitt's
cake is Mike Cook, a two year starter at East Carolina, where he averaged 15
ppg as a sophomore. He's not a great shooter, but he knows how to score.
He is very aggressive, so he will fit right in with the Panther persona of a
tough, hard-nosed player. His addition to the squad will likely keep Graves
and Benjamin in their previous roles as reserves. As if there weren’t enough
talent on board already, Dixon landed prep school standout Gilbert Brown, an
extremely athletic wing. He’s a versatile offensive player who can drive or
drain the perimeter shot. He is also a quick, aggressive defender who has a
knack for jumping the passing lane for steals. At 6'6", he will allow the
Panthers to match up with teams like Syracuse and Georgetown that have
taller players, like Demitris Nichols at Syracuse and Jeff Green at
Georgetown, playing small forward, instead of having to go with a smaller,
Finally, Dixon is an
excellent coach. His players work hard on both ends of the court and run a
team-oriented offense. He has done a terrific job of managing egos and has
avoided losing talented players to the malady of transferitis.
early March, Pitt should find itself sitting at the top of the Big East
standings. If the Panthers catch a break here or there, they could find
themselves playing in The Final Four later in the month.
- Predicted Finish:
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