Nearly every day at Petersen Events Center, well before Pitt's formal practice and on a back court out of public view, a rebounding machine that resembles R2-D2 spits out a basketball to Ashton Gibbs, poised behind the 3-point arc.
The shot finds nothing but net.
Another ball spits out.
Another 3-pointer, delivered just as mechanically and tirelessly as the machine.
This goes on for a total of 250 shots, followed by 250 of other varieties. And it will go on this morning at Madison Square Garden, where Pitt and Connecticut will tip off at noon in the Big East Conference quarterfinals, the Panthers' tournament opener.
Gibbs has followed this routine since childhood, and it lends weight to coach Jamie Dixon's long-held philosophy about the genesis of a great shooter.
"Shooters are made," Dixon said. "If you look at what Ashton does, it's consistent. Same release, same form, whether he's shooting by himself on that court, whether he's in drills with us, whether he's in a game. And it comes through hours and years of repetition and work. It's muscle memory. It's focus."
It is richly effective, too.
Jason Matthews, 259
Sean Miller, 239
Ronald Ramon, 233
Julius Page, 210
Brandin Knight, 209
Ashton Gibbs, 203
Jason Matthews, .457.
Ashton Gibbs, .429
Sean Miller, .416
Rod Brooklin, .409
Donatas Zavackas, .405
Sean Miller, .885
Ashton Gibbs, .881
Jason Matthews, .878.
Don Hennon, .823
Mike Paul, .808
Gibbs, a 6-foot-2 junior guard, is Pitt's leading scorer at 16.4 points per game, and that has come about almost entirely because of that shooting form: He leads the Big East in 3-pointers (89), 3-point percentage (.466) and free-throw percentage (.895).
An argument can be made that Gibbs is the greatest pure shooter in school history, and that could be bolstered today: He needs four more 3-pointers to tie Brandin Knight's season record of 93, set in 2001-02. He also has 203 for his career, making him a virtual lock to pass Ronald Ramon (233), Sean Miller (239) and standard-bearer Jason Matthews (259) by next season.
The Panthers' best ever?
"Oh, I think so," said Knight, now an assistant coach for Dixon. "Ashton makes pressure shots. Percentages don't always tell you about a shooter. He's proven time and again that he hits the shots that count. And it might even be a game where he was struggling. We still go to him, and he still hits it."
And was that born or made?
Gibbs shares that view, which is why he credits his father, Temple Gibbs, for his diligence rather than genetics.
"He's definitely been a big part of life, all the work we've done together," Ashton Gibbs said. "He's the reason I'm in this position."
Temple Gibbs was a football player at Temple University, and he watched Ashton shine as a running back, defensive back and linebacker at his middle school in Scotch Plains, N.J. Ashton played basketball, too, but was better in football, and the reason was clear.
"Couldn't shoot," Ashton recalled.
Still, the father saw his eldest son's athletic traits as better suited for basketball, so the two agreed after eighth grade that the sole focus would go to the court. The summer saw Ashton taking 300 shots a day in the family's backyard, while Temple acquired knowledge from books such as "Basketball for Dummies" to become a better teacher. The winter brought no break, with father and son taking their 300 shots indoors to a local YMCA.
Check that. Not 300 shots.
"Oh, no!" Temple Gibbs boomed, with a laugh. "We don't do shots. We do makes! He's got to make that many. And it still goes like that when we're working in the offseason at home."
Ashton Gibbs took off immediately at Seton Hall Prep, starring for all four years and finishing up as the school's all-time leading scorer. (His younger brother, Sterling, just broke that record.) In one game as a senior, he scored 30 of his team's 45 points in a loss, hitting seven 3-pointers.
Knight also attended that high school.
"Ashton's always had the routine, same approach, same everything," Knight said. "Now, we sometimes have to ask him not to come to the gym because of how grueling his workouts are."
The shot, then, is one part work of art, nine parts perspiration.
It starts with the lower body: Gibbs typically finds an opening behind the arc, plants his feet squarely to the basket, bends his knees slightly and raises his hands chest-high to receive a pass. Some 3-point aces create their own openings off the dribble, but Pitt's offense is geared to get Gibbs catch-and-shoot opportunities, his strength. That allows him to set up no differently than all those practice shots.
"He goes off the dribble a little bit," Dixon said. "What you see when his feet are squared is that he never takes shots off balance, and that's ideal. He doesn't practice bad shots or trick shots. There's no experimentation going on there."
Even more rigid is the release: Gibbs sets the ball with the right hand, then tucks in the elbow.
"That elbow went in right after eighth grade," Temple Gibbs said.
Next, the ball is raised over the head, which Dixon said is unusually high.
"You'll see a lot of shooters with the ball in front of the forehead," Dixon said.
This, too, came from the father.
"He taught me that in ninth grade," Ashton Gibbs said. "Especially being a guard and one of the smaller players on the court, if you have a quick release up high, you're fine even against a big man. Nobody could block your shot."
Gibbs displayed that deftly in the victory Saturday against Villanova, when two Wildcats pursued him outside the arc, their arms raised, and he still nailed a 3.
The climactic step is the elegant follow-through, an animated flick of the right hand -- "Same release every time, no matter where I'm shooting from," Gibbs said -- then a path for the ball to the basket that is at least as unusual as the height of the release: It looks more like a line drive than an arc. And yet, it almost never strikes the back rim as it slips through the threads.
Watching it from the side, it can make even the most educated Pitt follower nervous. Dixon is no exception.
"One thing I've talked with Ashton about is his arc, keeping that arc at a certain level," Dixon said.
What might that be?
"I want what I know goes in."
Gibbs laughs at the topic of his line-drive arc, citing nothing more than his confidence that the ball will end up where he aims.
"It's not visualization or anything like that," he said. "I just feel like every shot I take is going in."
And he feels like that even when he goes ice cold, as he was in the first half two weeks ago in Louisville, right before putting up 10 points the rest of the way.
"I had some open looks in that first half. But I had open looks in the second half, too, and I stayed confident. That can never change. It just can't."
At age 21 and with another year at Pitt, Gibbs has ample room to improve: He has upgraded his defense dramatically over last year, and he shows occasional flashes of penetrating to the basket and passing to teammates. He drew a loud ovation Saturday for a slick left-handed pass underneath to Nasir Robinson.
But Gibbs remains a point guard in name only, and that will have to change to a degree next year when top playmaker Brad Wanamaker is gone.
"I need to be creating shots for my teammates, too," Gibbs said.
If he does, the handful of basketball experts now tepidly predicting that he might be an NBA draft pick in 2012 could grow in numbers and conviction.
"I think I can be an NBA player, and I've always felt that way," Gibbs said. "When that time comes, I'll do my best to show the NBA scouts, coaches and players that I can do this at that level."
The NBA game has morphed quite a bit the past two decades, but there remains no hotter commodity than a hot shooter.
"I know, and I know I can do that," Gibbs said, smiling.
Count Reggie Miller, one of the greatest outside shooters in NBA history and now an NCAA analyst for CBS Sports, among the believers.
"I love Ashton Gibbs," Miller said. "He's a great shooter who makes the big shots, and he's only going to get better. There's still another evolution for him, when he becomes a great dribbler and is driving to the net. But that will come. He has those skills, too."
Miller had a slightly different take on whether shooters are born or made.
"To me, they're born with the kind of confidence Ashton Gibbs has. You've got to want to be the baddest man on the court. But you've got to cultivate it, and that's what he's doing every day."