Gone: SG-Jermaine Dixon, PG-Chase Adams, PF-Dwight Miller (transfer-Midland Junior College)
From a pure talent standpoint, Pitt is not the best team in the conference. But after the coaching job Jamie Dixon did last season in replacing four starters and still leading the Panthers to a second place finish, you can no longer overlook this team (I learned my lesson after picking them to finish 10th in the Big East last season. Whoops.)
Pitt returns eight of its top nine scorers, and that experience gives the team a major advantage since most of the other top conference contenders lost at least a couple of star players. The Panthers are by no means a sexy team as they finished 11th in the conference in scoring, but they value each offensive possession and play extremely hard on defense.
The starting five will consist of five upperclassmen who have been through the rigors of the Big East. Ashton Gibbs will run the point but can also switch over to his more natural position at the two when Trevon Woodall brings his quickness and ability to distribute to the point.
Brad Wanamaker is an underrated, do-it-all guard, while Gilbert Brown is an incredibly athletic wing. There is not a whole of experience behind them, as seldom-used sophomore Lamar Patterson figures to be the main backup, while freshmen Cameron Wright and J.J. Moore will likely wait their turn on the bench.
Six-foot-11 Gary McGhee is Pitt's only true big man and was one of the most improved players in the conference a year ago. He is built like a truck, and knows how to assert himself as a rebounder and shot-blocker. McGhee will be joined up front by 6-5 Nasir Robinson who will miss at least the first week of the season; possibly the first month as he recovers from minor knee surgery. He is by no means a true power forward, but fits Dixon's hard-nosed style of play and is a solid rebounder for his size.
Redshirt freshman Talib Zanna started in Robinson's place Tuesday against Rhode Island and brings some athleticism to the frontcourt. Former McDonald's All-American Dante Taylor struggled acclimating himself to the college game as a freshman, but has put in a lot of work in the offseason re-shaping his body. He should be more of a factor off the bench providing some physicality behind McGhee. J.J. Richardson will probably be the odd man out of the rotation, but will get a shot to shine early in the season while Robinson is sidelined and could earn some minutes.
Jamie Dixon is entering Bo Ryan territory for me in that no matter how many players he loses or has to replace, he will get the most out of his team and have them contending for a conference title. With so much talent returning this year, the Panthers should use their toughness and experience to be major players on the national level.
Player to Watch: Ashton Gibbs, G
With their team mentality on both ends, Gibbs is closest thing Pitt has to a go-to scorer. He took a major leap in his first year as a starter averaging 15.7 points in 34.6 minutes per game last season compared the 4.3 points in 10.7 minutes per game he averaged during his freshman year while backing up Levance Fields. Gibbs is a talented shooter but needs to become more of a distributing point guard to help the Panthers take a step to the next level of being a national title contender.