With the news that Ashton Gibbs is returning for his senior season, there was a collective sigh of relief in Oakland this weekend. What impact does his return have on next year's Pitt basketball team? Safe to say it's a pretty big one.
Despite all the talk about Brad Wanamaker's all-around game or Gilbert Brown's athleticism, there was no real debate that Ashton Gibbs was Pitt's best player last season. Despite shouldering the burden of running the offense at point guard, Gibbs was still the team's leading scorer at just under 17 points per game. The biggest thing, though, was that he improved dramatically from his sophomore season. He increased his scoring average playing fewer minutes per game and despite the fact that defenders focused in on him the entire year.
More impressive were the jumps in his shooting percentages. He increased his field goal percentage from under 40 percent to nearly 47 percent. The rise in his three-point percentage was even more astounding, rising a full 10 percent from 39 percent to 49 percent.
The argument can be made that Gibbs will be hard pressed to improve those numbers, but the fact is that he has plenty to work on next season if he wants to become an NBA Draft pick. Gibbs needs to improve off the dribble and could become a better defender. Cutting back on turnovers would also help - despite playing fewer minutes this season, his 51 was an increase from his 2009-10 total of 40. Seven times this season, Gibbs turned the ball over at least three times. Much of that was due to the fact that as the point guard, he was handling the ball a lot more, though, so that total should decrease next year.
So Gibbs will again be Pitt's best player. But what exactly does that mean for the team?
Well, for starters, the backcourt will be much better obviously. With senior Brad Wanamaker moving on, having Gibbs will again assure that the guard play will be good. Gibbs and just about anyone else would give Pitt one of the Big East's best backcourts.
Pitt is also expected to transition Travon Woodall to the starting rotation. Playing Woodall at the point will give Gibbs the opportunity to play his natural position at shooting guard. He should continue to flourish there and without needing to run the offense, he can concentrate on freeing himself for open looks.
In turn, with Gibbs around, the bench depth will be helped greatly. If he decided to move on, Pitt would have been forced to likely start Lamar Patterson in his place. With two new starters in Woodall and Patterson, the backcourt would have been fairly inexperienced. Assuming freshman J.J. Moore gets a chance to start next year at small forward, head coach Jamie Dixon would have been stuck with not only an inexperienced starting unit, but a depleted bench. With Dante Taylor also slated to start and J.J. Richardson transferring, Talib Zanna could have been the only reserve with any playing time under his belt. Yes, there's incoming phenom Khem Birch, but he's still only a freshman and has yet to play in the Big East or on the college level.
But Gibbs' return nixes all of that. Pitt may not begin the year as a top-ten team with the losses of Brown, Wanamaker, and Gary McGhee, but the Panthers should again contend for the Big East title. More importantly, with Gibbs back, Pitt can be primed for a deep run in March. No, that hasn't happened yet, but with Gibbs on the team, it's at least possible. Without him, Pitt would have undoubtedly taken a step back next year.