Friday, October 24, 2008

No. 5 Pittsburgh: 2008-2009 Team Preview

2007-2008 Team Record: 27-10, 10-8 Big East (7th)

Key Losses: Ronald Ramon (8.5 ppg, 3.6 apg), Keith Benjamin (9.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg), Mike Cook (10.4 ppg)

Key Returnees: Levance Fields (11.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg), DeJuan Blair (11.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg), Sam Young (18.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg)

Newcomers: Jermaine Dixon, Ashton Gibbs, Dwight Miller, Nasir Robisnon, Travon Woodall

Pitt had a relatively disappointing regular season in '07-'08, but a huge reason for that were the injuries to Mike Cook and Levance Fields. Fields is still not 100% after reinjuring the same foot and undergoing a second surgery on it in August. Although he has not set a date for his return, he should be back by the time conference season starts on New Years Eve, which is huge for the Panthers. Aside from Fields, Pitt is losing pretty much everyone that played guard for them last season.

Fields is probably the most valuable player on Pitt this year. He is their leader on the court, setting the tone for a team known for their toughness and rugged defense with his harassing ball pressure at the point guard spot. He is also the only returner that can create from the perimeter. Fields is adept at getting into the lane, whether it is to score or to pass. With the lack of offensive talent on this Pitt team, how well Fields plays and how well he is able to create is going to be very important to the Panther's success.

The rest of the Pitt backcourt has a lot of question marks. Gilbert Brown, a sophomore and probable starter on the wing, is a 6'6" athlete and a very good defender, but his offensive game is limited as his jump shot needs improvement. Brad Wanamaker, another sophomore, played a limited role as a freshman and should see some expanded minutes, but he is also better on the defensive end and needs to improve his jump shot. Nasir Robinson is probably the best of the four newcomers that play in the back court. He is a typical Pitt wing - 6'5", tough and an athletic defender but with a sub-par jump shot (notice a theme developing here?). The other three back court recruits (freshmen Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall and JuCo transfer Jermaine Dixon, all PG's) should battle it out for minutes backing up Fields.

Pitt's front court should be very good this year. The best of the bunch last year was Sam Young. Young made the transition from an athletic power forward to more of a wing with the development of a very consistent and dangerous perimeter stroke, especially in the 15-18 foot range. He is very quick for someone his size, and while his ball-handling needs some work, he is able to get by defenders that crowd his shot. Joining Young up front is bruising sophomore DeJuan Blair. Blair is built more like an offensive lineman at 6'7", 265 lb, but he has a 7'3" wingspan and an outstanding understanding of positioning. He uses his bulk to establish position inside on both ends of the floor, and since his hands are like suction cups, he is one of the best rebounders in the country, ranking 5th in the country in boards per 40 minutes (14.2). Outside of about 7 feet, Blair was pretty ineffective offensively as his ball skills are still fairly raw, but with an off-season of work he could be ready for a huge year a la Luke Harangody. Tyrell Biggs, a 6'8", 250 lb horse inside, will probably be the first big man off the bench, while 6'10", 250 lb sophomore Gary McGhee and 6'8", 230 lb freshman Dwight Miller should both contribute minutes.

Outlook: You know what you are going to get with Pitt - a team that plays tough defense in the half court, attacks the offensive boards, and will make you wish you could wear pads on the basketball court. This year, especially, their front line is going to be very good with Sam Young back and DeJuan Blair (at least in one man's opinion) ready for a huge season. Levance Fields, once healthy, is going to be the same Levance Fields from the last three seasons. The biggest question with Pitt this year is their shooting. Keith Benjamin, Ronald Ramon, and to a lesser degree Mike Cook were the only guys that could knock down three's in the back court last year, and no one Pitt brings in is known as a shooter. But Pitt has never been a team known for their perimeter shooting, and luckily they don't rely on it (and with Blair cleaning up underneath, maybe more misses is a good thing...). Pitt should be in the thick of the chase for the Big East title and a Final Four berth.

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