It seems a bit preposterous to suggest that Pitt might be better in some ways this season than it was last season when it advanced to the fourth round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in 35 years. But who is going to argue with a Hall of Fame coach when he says the Panthers are improved in several areas?
That's what Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said yesterday morning when asked about Pitt's torrid start to Big East play. The Panthers are 4-0 entering tomorrow's game with Louisville with victories in the bag against No. 5 Syracuse and No. 15 Connecticut.
Picked to finish ninth in the Big East in a preseason poll of the coaches, Pitt is one of two teams in the conference without a loss in league play. This is a rather unexpected development considering the Panthers lost four starters, including NBA players DeJuan Blair and Sam Young and gritty point guard Levance Fields, who is playing professionally overseas.
- Game: No. 20 Pitt (14-2, 4-0 Big East) vs. Louisville (12-5, 3-1), noon.
- TV: WTAE.
"Prognostications are always based on who is coming back," Boeheim said. "What is unknown, what people did not know was how good Ashton Gibbs was. He's as good as any player in the league in the backcourt. Jermaine Dixon, arguably, is as good as any defender in the league. Brad Wanamaker is very good.
"When you lose a lot of guys and you don't have five McDonald's All-Americans coming in like North Carolina, you're going to be picked low. But Pitt has very good players. They have guys who can shoot and score."
Boeheim indicated that Pitt was better in some key aspects of the team, including at point guard. Boeheim said Gibbs is an upgrade over Fields because of his ability to shoot from 3-point range.
"I like Fields," Boeheim said. "I think Fields is a really good player, but I'd rather play against Fields than Gibbs because Gibbs can make six 3s against you in a game. To me, Gibbs is a big improvement even though Fields was a tremendous player. Gibbs is an improvement, a big improvement.
"A couple of other guys are improvements too because they can shoot better than the guys they lost. They still play the same great defense. They lost two great players in the frontcourt. But they're still good and can play with anyone in the country."
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, who also lost to Pitt last week, said that it is a mistake if coaches underestimate Pitt's talent. Coach Jamie Dixon lost 66 percent of his scoring, but the players who had limited roles last season are taking advantage of their opportunities.
"You can't underestimate their talent," Cronin said. "Gilbert Brown is right there with Stanley Robinson as the most athletic player in our league. Ashton Gibbs is having an all-Big East season. But that being said I think you have to give all the credit to Jamie Dixon. They don't turn the ball over. The No. 1 reason for success is they don't beat themselves. If you watch Pitt play they don't beat themselves. You have to find a way to beat them. If they make some shots the sky is the limit. They're as tough an out as there is in the country."
For a team that was picked to finish in the middle of the pack to being talked about as one of the toughest outs in the country, Pitt has come a long way in a short amount of time.
"It just shows you if you build a program, the DNA is you do whatever it takes to win," Cronin said. "The kids who sign there sign on for that. If that takes Jamie getting in their face at practice, saying, 'We don't turn the ball over, we defend. This is our formula for success ...' It's not questioned. That's the key. That's why it was so important when they made the tremendous decision to hire Jamie when Ben Howland went to UCLA. They were able maintain continuity and the standard of how they have success."
Dixon said yesterday he is not surprised by his team's fast start in conference play, but he said he was pleased at how the Panthers have shown steady improvement.
"I get satisfaction out of coaching any team," Dixon said. "This team has been interesting in that it has improved so much from the start of the year. Some guys have gotten better. Others are getting healthy. As any coach, you want to see your team improve. Anyone who saw us at the start of the year and now can speak to our constant improvement throughout. That has been gratifying. But we didn't lower our expectations so I'm not surprised. Our demands were the same. Our players and staff understood that. We made that very clear from the beginning."
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230. First Published January 15, 2010 5:00 AM