Pitt guard Gilbert Brown: "We've played together for two or three years, most of us. Chemistry shouldn't be an issue. We just have to jell like any other team at this time."
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In a season in which Pitt hopes to play in the final college basketball game of the season in April at Reliant Stadium in Houston, the fifth-ranked Panthers have the unique distinction of playing the first contest of this season.
Pitt and Rhode Island play at 7 p.m. today at the Petersen Events Center in a preliminary round game of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. The Panthers and Rams are two of eight teams playing tonight. Illinois, Texas and Maryland also play host to games, but they start at 8 p.m.
Pitt, Texas, Illinois and Maryland also play Wednesday night. Most other NCAA Division I teams open their seasons Friday.
This is the earliest season opener in school history for Pitt, and it comes against the type of opponent most teams usually try to avoid in the first game of the season. Pitt has opened against the likes of Houston Baptist and Fairleigh Dickinson in some recent seasons, but Rhode Island is not a pushover.
Game: Rhode Island vs. No. 5 Pitt, 7 p.m. today, Petersen Events Center.
Pitt: Returns four starters from a team that won 25 games last season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. ... Seven of the top eight scorers return, led by junior G Ashton Gibbs (15.7 ppg). ... Senior G Brad Wanamaker became the first player in school history to average 10 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in the same season. ... Senior C Gary McGhee led the team in field-goal percentage (62.3), rebounding (6.8 rpg) and blocked shots (59) last season. ... Senior F Gilbert Brown had three 20-point games last season. ... Has won 47 consecutive games against non-conference opponents at the Petersen Events Center.
Rhode Island: Returns three starters from a team that had a 26-10 record last season and lost to North Carolina in overtime in the semifinal round of the NIT. ... Led by Delroy James (13.2 ppg), Will Martel (7.5 ppg) and Marquis Jones (5.7 ppg). ... Predicted to finish fifth in the Atlantic 10 Conference in a vote of the league's media and coaches.
Of note: Pitt has not lost a season opener since 1996.
The Rams, who play in the Atlantic 10 Conference, won 26 games last season and advanced to the semifinal round of the NIT. Coach Jim Baron returns three starters from that team, which defeated five teams -- Providence, Boston College, Oklahoma State, Northwestern and Virginia Tech -- from the six power conferences.
"It's a different opener than most teams in the country have," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "It's a different game. Go look at the first week of the schedule. I would venture to say there are not two teams this good playing against each other in the first week of the season.
"No one of our caliber is playing a team of their caliber, and no one of their caliber is playing a team of our caliber. We wanted to play the best teams we could play. That's what we asked for. We know it's a really tough game. It's a team that won 26 games last year and beat some really good people. We have to be ready."
The early start to the season meant a shorter preseason, which could be a concern for the Panthers. Dixon has been dealing with some injuries to some key players. Nasir Robinson, who started all 34 games last season, is out with a knee injury. Ashton Gibbs, Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee and Lamar Patterson each missed some practices within the past week. Brown missed the most time because of a hamstring injury and had a hard time getting into the flow in Pitt's final exhibition game Thursday night against IUP.
"Oftentimes, the longer guys are out, the harder it is to get right back into the rotation," Dixon said. "That's a hard adjustment."
The players don't share the same concerns as their coach when it comes to the lack of time they practiced together this preseason. Brown said Pitt's experience should help the Panthers overcome any problems stemming from missed practice time.
"We've played together for two or three years, most of us," Brown said. "Chemistry shouldn't be an issue. We just have to jell like any other team at this time."
Rhode Island is led by a trio of seniors. The leading returning scorer is 6-foot-8 forward Delroy James, who averaged 13.2 points per game last season. Center Will Martell (7.5), at 7 feet, and point guard Marquis Jones (5.7 ppg) also play key roles for the Rams.
"They're a pretty talented team," senior guard Brad Wanamaker said. "They push the tempo. They press. They're constantly attacking you. They have some good wings, some good big men. It'll be a tough game for us."