Gibbs will be the engine that drives Pitt's offense


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Temple Gibbs played football at Temple University, and his first-born son wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. Ashton Gibbs was a wide receiver and running back growing up in New Jersey and called football his "first love".

But like many fathers of athletic children, Temple Gibbs wanted his son to specialize in one sport once he entered high school. He believed it was the way for Ashton to achieve the highest level in his chosen sport.

"We had to make a decision," Temple Gibbs said. "If he was going to play football, we were going to have to change his body. We were going to have to get him bigger and stronger. I just felt like we had to find out what he would succeed at best. I felt like he was a good football player. I didn't think he was a great football player. And I thought he could be a great basketball player, so we started working on basketball year-round."

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has been the main beneficiary of that decision, made seven years ago. Ashton Gibbs, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior, is one of the top guards in the country for the No.5-ranked Panthers, who begin the regular season Monday night against Rhode Island.

Gibbs had an excellent sophomore year, averaging 15.7 points per game. He is expected to be one of the top players in the league this season and was named preseason first-team all-Big East by the league's coaches.

"Once I decided to stop playing football, I wanted to see if I could take basketball to another level," Gibbs said. "I've been fortunate to play with some great players. And we've put in a lot of work. It really feels like everything is starting to fall in place for me. I still feel like the sky is the limit."

An appetite for perfection

Last season, Dixon called Gibbs the hardest-working player he has coached. He takes hundreds upon hundreds of shots a day during the offseason and is the first one in and the last one out of the gymnasium. Gibbs credits his work ethic to his parents. Once the decision was made that basketball was the sport he would pursue in college, Temple Gibbs made sure his son was prepared to handle the workload.

"He always made sure I did something every single day," Ashton said. "Whether it was shooting or dribbling, whether it was for 15 minutes or two hours, he had me doing something every single day."

After last season ended, Dixon encouraged Gibbs to become a better athlete. Dixon wanted his starting point guard to become a better defender and a better penetrator on offense. Gibbs took the challenge head-on, and one of the byproducts of the offseason work is an improved vertical leap. He could not dunk during his first two seasons, but he can now and said he might try to throw one down in a game if the opportunity presents itself.

"I'm a lot quicker now than I was last season," Gibbs said.

Dixon said one of the reasons he wanted Gibbs to improve his athleticism is because opponents will be looking to shut him down. He was an unknown commodity before last season and might have caught coaches by surprise. That won't happen this season, and Dixon wanted him to be prepared for the extra attention.

"We wanted to work with him getting by people," Dixon said. "People are going to be looking for him. It's not always going to be to score. It's going to be to get other guys shots. He has to get in the lane and find the open man."

Finding his stroke again

Gibbs was one of the top 3-point shooters in the Big East last season, shooting 39 percent from behind the arc. But that percentage was almost five points lower than the percentage he shot as a freshman.

There are a few reasons for the the drop in percentage. He was the team's point guard and was responsible for finding open teammates as well as finding his shot. And he played a team-high 34.6 minutes per game after only averaging 10.7 minutes a game as a freshman.

Gibbs also said his shot selection left something to be desired.

"I need to take more quality shots," he said. "I've been working on my consistency. Last year, toward the end of the season I wouldn't say I was tired, but I definitely was not as consistent as I had been.

"A lot of it was my decision-making. I took bad shots. I think I'll improve on that. When I took bad shots, it affected the team and my percentage."

Despite having what Gibbs characterized as a disappointing shooting percentage, he still ranks among the school's alltime best in that category. He currently is in fifth place in 3-point shooting percentage (40.4 percent) behind Jason Matthews, Sean Miller, Rod Brookin and Donatas Zavackas.

Gibbs has made 114 3-pointers during his career, 78 of them last season. If he averages 78 over his final two seasons, he will finish his career as the most prolfic 3-point shooter in school history. Matthews currently holds the record for most 3-pointers with 259.

A championship mentality

Gibbs and his teammates have not been shy about stating their goals for the season. The preseason Big East favorite, Pitt wants to win the conference's regular-season title and the school's first NCAA championship.

The Panthers return four starters and seven of their top eight scorers from last season. They are a veteran-laden team with players who have invaluable NCAA tournament experience.

"I think this year the difference could be we have all of our guys coming back," Gibbs said. "We've been there. A lot of the guys were here two years ago when we went to the Elite Eight. Everyone is working hard to get to another level. I think the best is yet to come for this team."

Pitt has three senior leaders in Brad Wanamaker, Gary McGhee and Gilbert Brown and a cast of youngsters who are on the verge of making an impact. But Gibbs is the team's engine. He is the point guard, leading scorer and an emerging leader.

Gibbs was asked why this team might advance to a Final Four and compete for an NCAA title while previous Pitt teams have not. He said one difference was depth.

"Look at how deep we are," Gibbs said. "Our depth is a big key. Our freshmen are really pushing all of us in practice. We have competition at every position for playing time. Everyone is competing every single day. Our games are easy and fun. Practice is the hard part because of how much competition there is."


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


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