Pitt's roster will be reshaped before October arrives

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When elite power forward prospect Khem Birch decided to enter college a year early, it was good news for Pitt. No coach in NCAA basketball will turn down the opportunity to have a McDonald's All-American on his roster.

But Birch's decision likely will lead to one of the more eventful offseasons of Jamie Dixon's eight-year tenure as Pitt's head coach.

Birch is a member of Dixon's highly touted five-player recruiting class. Only Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee graduate, so he currently is two players over the scholarship limit.

The problem can be solved in a variety of ways. Players on the roster could transfer to another school and/or one of the incoming freshmen might fail to qualify academically, but complete resolution might not come until August or later. Incoming recruits must pass through the NCAA Clearinghouse to be eligible for next season, and it might not be known until late summer if all five qualify.

• At power forward, Birch, 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, will join a crowded group, if he is eligible. He will pass up his final year at Notre Dame Prep in Massachusetts and enroll at Pitt this summer.

Nasir Robinson is penciled in as the starter at power forward, and it's hard to imagine Birch being anything less than the top reserve. He is considered among the top 10-15 high school prospects in the country, and those types of players almost always earn significant playing time as freshmen.

Center Dante Taylor, Dixon's only other McDonald's All-American, has not lived up to expectations, but he has been a regular part of the rotation from the time he set foot on campus.

That leaves some measure of doubt about the future of Talib Zanna and J.J. Richardson. Zanna (3.7 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game) started 13 games early in the season when Robinson was out with a knee injury. Zanna performed well, but his role steadily decreased as the season progressed. Richardson (1.1 ppg, 0.9 rpg) is a natural power forward who has served as a reserve center during his first two seasons.

One of the other four incoming recruits, Jaylen Bond, is a power forward, too. The possibility remains that Dixon could ask one of the incoming recruits to attend prep school for a year, but it's hard to envision a scenario where Dixon has four power forwards on the roster next season.

• The center position is another area of concern for Dixon. McGhee was not an accomplished offensive player, but he was one of the best post defenders in the Big East. Dixon will turn to the 6-foot-9 Taylor to fill the void.

Taylor, who struggled with knee problems for much of the season, averaged 5.1 points and 4.5 rebounds as McGhee's backup. Taylor has to improve as a defender and expand his limited offensive repertoire. Most of his points came in transition or from offensive rebounds. If the Panthers are going to be a team that makes deeper NCAA tournament runs, they're probably going to have to get better production from the center position. Taylor's backup will be either Richardson or incoming freshman Malcolm Gilbert.

Point guard: Ashton Gibbs has been the point guard the past two seasons in title only. Wanamaker, Pitt's leader in assists, basically ran the point from the shooting guard position. Next season, the Panthers will go back to having a traditional point guard when Travon Woodall takes over and Gibbs shifts to shooting guard.

Woodall might not ever develop into a point guard in the mold of Brandin Knight, Carl Krauser or Levance Fields, but with Gibbs playing by his side, the Panthers don't need him to be a star. He merely has to continue what he has done for the past two seasons -- maintain a high assist-to-turnover ratio, push in transition when opportunities arise and make an occasional outside shot.

Woodall, who has started 15 games the past two seasons, was second in the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio (117 to 50) and second on the team in assists behind Wanamaker. He made a lot of clutch shots this season, but his shooting percentage must improve. Woodall made just 29 percent of his 3-point attempts. If he can develop a consistent outside shot, it will help take the pressure off Gibbs.

There is not much depth or experience behind Woodall at the point. Isaiah Epps redshirted this season, and incoming guard John Johnson is not a pure point guard.

Shooting guard: Gibbs finished the season shooting 49.0 percent from 3-point range -- the second-best percentage in school history behind Donatas Zavackas (49.4). Gibbs is likely to be the team's leading scorer again as a senior, but he can improve his effectiveness inside the 3-point arc. He struggled at times when teams forced him to put the ball down and take mid-range jump shots or drive to the hoop. Patterson is the likely candidate to eat up minutes when Gibbs is out of the game, along with Cameron Wright, who redshirted this past season.

Small forward: Brown was a 1,000-point scorer and the team's top perimeter defender, but Dixon has plenty of talent and depth at small forward next season. Jonathan Moore is perhaps the team's most talented offensive player. He scored in double figures three times in the nonconference schedule but did not play much during the second half of the season because his defensive work lacked consistency.

He will battle Patterson for the starting job. Patterson earned the reserve role behind Brown because of his versatility and high basketball IQ. He also has the ability to play shooting guard and power forward in a pinch. He is not as gifted athletically and does not possess Moore's outside shooting ability, but Dixon knows he has a reliable player who is unselfish and will play within the team concept. One possibility is for Moore to get the bulk of the minutes at small forward while Patterson plays as a reserve at small forward and shooting guard.

Incoming freshman Durand Johnson is a talented offensive player known for his outside shooting ability.

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.


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