With lofty rankings, the Pitt men's basketball team is expected to take a step forward this season. Last year, the team was one of the nation's biggest surprises, winning 25 games and reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament. While it endured another disappointing early exit in the tournament, it was a promising season. With most of its team intact, could this be the year Pitt reaches the Final Four?
Pitt returns four of its five starters from last season, losing only starting guard Jermaine Dixon. Dixon's defense will be missed, but with everyone else a year older (and hopefully better), the starters should be able to make up Dixon's for 10.6 points per game. It isn't completely clear what the starting rotation will look like, but guards Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs, forwards Gilbert Brown and Nasir Robinson, and center Gary McGhee are the likely starters.
Brown should essentially fill Dixon's spot in the starting lineup, giving the team a bit more offense and size. If he starts, Brown should play at small forward, moving Brad Wanamaker down a position to shooting guard to replace Dixon.
Gibbs will again be relied upon as the go-to scorer, but he'll have help. If this is indeed the starting lineup, one disadvantage will be that Gibbs will be relied upon to start at point guard. Having to set up the offense will be an extra burden on him and could hamper his ability to get open. Still, this is a pretty good starting lineup.
Pitt is known for having deep benches and this year will be no exception. The frontcourt backups will be led by sophomore Dante Taylor and redshirt freshman Talib Zanna. Both are excellent rebounders, and Zanna in particular showed over the summer that he deserves serious playing time. If head coach Jamie Dixon sticks to the same plan he followed last year, Taylor will back up McGhee at center. That would free Zanna to be the top backup off the bench at power forward. Pitt could also use Zanna when it needs a bit more size, since he is four inches taller than the 6-foot-5 Robinson. One more thing - while I expect Robinson to start at the beginning of the season, don't be surprised if Zanna eventually takes Robinson's spot if Zanna emerges as the better scorer.
Pitt's backup point guard will be Travon Woodall, who progressed significantly last season. He could also be on the court at the same time as Gibbs if Dixon wants to go with a smaller rotation. Incoming freshman J.J. Moore may be one of the most athletic players on the team and he may be the only freshman who cracks the team's rotation this season. And while redshirt freshman Lamar Patterson should serve as the primary backup at small forward, he may not see as much time as Zanna or Moore as the team may choose to go with three guards or two power forwards at a time.
Incoming freshmen Isaiah Epps and Cameron Wright are both talented, but there may be no room for them in the regular rotation. In Epps' case, that would have sounded ridiculous when he was recruited, as he was heralded as one of the top point guards in the nation. But Pitt's point guard position is already in good hands with Gibbs and Woodall, and since Epps wasn't around the team for the Greentree Summer League or its trip to Ireland, he arguably missed out on about a half a season of development. Both Epps and Wright could be candidates for redshirts.
Senior Nick Rivers and freshman Aron Nwankwo round out the roster and are not expected to be key contributors.
Pitt won't sneak up on anyone this season, that's for sure - the team is ranked No. 4 in the ESPN/USA Today Preseason Coaches Poll. This is a classic Pitt team without superstars but with lots of depth. Players like Zanna, Taylor, Woodall, and even Moore could start for many Division I teams.
But as we've seen before, more times than not, you need at least one true superstar to advance far into the NCAA tournament. Even the team with future NBA players DeJuan Blair and Sam Young couldn't get to the Final Four, and unless someone emerges from this team as a big-time star, it's hard to imagine them doing something that 2008-09 team couldn't.