For the past decade, Pitt's point guard lineage had a well-defined order of succession: One great player graduated and a younger player stepped in. • Brandin Knight, a four-year starter and one of the school's all-time greats whose jersey hangs in the Petersen Events Center rafters, is the standard by which the others are measured. After Knight came a series of three-year starters who also have their names etched into the Pitt record books.
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Carl Krauser served as the point guard from 2003-06. He was followed by Levance Fields, who filled that role from 2006-09. Ashton Gibbs took over in '09 and is entering his third year as a starter in the backcourt. For Tray Woodall, the route to starting point guard has been long. He is in his fourth season in the program and has had to overcome obstacles and adversity to finally get his chance.
A 5-foot-11, 190-pound redshirt junior, Woodall will start at the point alongside Gibbs in the backcourt when the Panthers play their season opener Friday against Albany.
- Game: Pitt vs. Albany, Petersen Events Center.
- When: 7 p.m. Friday.
- Of note: The game will be televised on Panthers TV.
"Those guys paved the way for me," Woodall said. "They walked in their own paths. We all wear different shoes. I can't follow in their own footsteps. I have to make my own path. They did a great job. I'm just trying to become my own type of player and leave my own mark here."
Woodall has had his share of highs and lows in his first three seasons. As a freshman he played in the first 10 games of the season before taking a medical redshirt with a knee injury. As he watched from the bench in the second half of that season, his teammates took part in one of the more memorable seasons in school history with a run to the NCAA Elite Eight.
The following season, Woodall started the first 11 games while Jermaine Dixon was out with an injury. The Panthers started 9-2, but Woodall had his minutes reduced upon Dixon's return. Like his minutes, Woodall's play declined, too.
"That was a growing situation for him," said longtime Pitt assistant Pat Sandle, who works with the guards in practice. "Everyone comes in and says, 'I can start as a freshman.' Then they see how fast it is, how hard the guys play, how different situations are. Sometimes, doubt gets into young guys' heads. He did play really well, and he wanted to keep playing. But we had [Dixon] coming back. He got frustrated with that."
Woodall settled into his role as a reserve last season and averaged 6.4 points per game. He was second to Brad Wanamaker in assists with 3.4 per game and his assist to turnover ratio was better than 2 to 1.
Coach Jamie Dixon is expecting the same type of steady play with Woodall as the starter. He has said that the Panthers will have two point guards on the floor this season, but it will be Woodall who will step into the role of traditional point guard.
For the past two seasons, Pitt ran its offense without the typical pass-first point guard. Gibbs, one of the country's top shooters, was called the point guard, but he was the team's leading scorer and top 3-point shooter. Wanamaker, who graduated after last season, was the main facilitator in the offense.
"Tray is back in the mold of Levance and Brandin, guys who are pass first and look for assists," Sandle said. "It comes naturally to him. Because Ashton is such a dynamic shooter we didn't want to take that away from him. We want him to concentrate on moving without the ball and getting his shots. Tray can get into the gaps and make plays. Traditionally, that's what we're looking for."
He is going to have to knock down the outside shot, too, because teams will be focusing on Gibbs in an attempt to limit his scoring. Woodall, a career 26.7 percent shooter from 3-point range, will have plenty of opportunities to prove teams wrong.
"Running the team is something that I've always been accustomed to, getting other guys shots," Woodall said. "That's why I've been working all summer on my shot. I've been getting up thousands of shots daily. I have to be one of those guys who can knock down open shots, especially when they start keying on Ashton. ... My percentage will shoot up tremendously just based on me being confident shooting the ball."
Knight and Fields did not shoot a high percentage, but they were known to hit some big shots. Woodall started to develop the same kind of reputation last season when he made clutch shots in the waning seconds of games against Providence and St. John's. The shot against Providence won the game. The shot against St. John's tied the score before the Red Storm won on a shot at the buzzer.
"He relishes those opportunities," Sandle said. "He wants the ball in his hands when the clock is winding down."
But shooting is not at the top of Woodall's job description. His main duty will be passing the ball to open teammates while not turning it over to opponents.
"I think he can do a very good job for us," Sandle continued. "He has the ability to do it. He has the skills to do it. I think he has to stay in that mold [of the traditional point guard.] He's so confident in his shot, he's going to take it. And we teach that. If you have an open shot that you make during practice, we want you to take it.
"When Levance was here he would pass on open shots to get his teammates better shots, try to make plays. Levance had it in his mind that he would lead the Big East and the NCAA in assists. He had that goal. Brandin had the same game plan. Some guys would just rather be pass-first type of point guards. With Tray, he goes back and forth on it. As long as he does the other things for us to win, that's fine."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or 412-263-1230.