Pitt's senior class maintained a 'tradition of excellence'
Share with others:
Fifty-one and counting. That's the number victories Pitt's seniors have earned since the "Big Fella" departed for the NBA.
That is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the seniors earning their 109th victory Wednesday night at South Florida. Almost half of the victories have come without DeJuan Blair, a larger-than-life center who was the prized recruit of this class.
Blair, who earned Big East Conference player of the year honors after his sophomore season, left Pitt with two years of eligibility remaining to pursue a career in the NBA. Without Blair, starting at center for the San Antonio Spurs, the remaining members of this class are four victories shy of becoming the winningest senior class for the Panthers.
"We're a bunch of guys who work hard," senior center McGhee said. "Maybe not as many superstars, but guys who work hard, love to play together and go out there and get wins."
The seniors will be honored Saturday before the regular-season finale against Villanova at Petersen Events Center. Many college programs fall apart when a player leaves early for the NBA, but the Panthers kept rolling with a group of unheralded players who developed into team-oriented leaders.
"It says a lot," senior forward Gilbert Brown said. "It just shows the quality of players we had and the work we put in. It shows how we were dedicated to overcome adversity, to go out there and fill the shoes that were left for us to step into."
The 2008-09 senior class of Sam Young, Tyrell Biggs and Levance Fields holds the school record with 112 victories, but the group this season already has done something that class could not -- win a regular-season championship. The Panthers earned at least a share of the conference title with a 66-50 victory at South Florida and can win the title outright with a victory against Villanova.
While the class lacks star power without Blair, there is growing sentiment around the league that Brad Wanamaker should be on the short list for Big East player of the year.
Wanamaker will go down as one of the most complete players in school history. He became only the second Pitt player to score 1,000 points, pull down 500 rebounds and dish out 400 assists. Wanamaker enters his final home game with 1,056 points, 506 rebounds and 434 assists. He is currently No. 35 on the school's all-time scoring list and ranks eighth in assists.
Recently, Big East coaches such as Mike Brey of Notre Dame and Mike Rice of Rutgers have sung praises of Wanamaker. "I don't know if there is a more respected player in this league," Brey said.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon believes the same way. He has been trying to talk up Wanamaker since the beginning of the season, and he is finally seeing Wanamaker receive his due.
"Brad has picked up some momentum as far as people talking about him," Dixon said. "I was fighting in the fall. I thought he was under-recognized last year. I said the same thing about DeJuan his sophomore year. He wasn't preseason all-conference and I was amazed by that. It's good to see Brad get the recognition. He was one of those guys. I just knew he was going to be really good for us. I was almost forcing it upon him as a freshman. I made it a little bit tougher on him that I should have. But four years later, he's a player of the year candidate, so I guess things worked out pretty well."
Brown, a fifth-year senior who originally was a member of the 2006-07 recruiting class, can become the 40th member of Pitt's 1,000-point club Saturday. Brown needs to score five points to gain that distinction.
Brown is the only player on this team to play a major role on the team that won the Big East tournament in 2008. Brown was a key reserve on that team that won four games in four days to earn the tournament trophy.
"To score my 1,000th point and to win an outright championship would be one of the best feelings in the world," Brown said. "It might even be better than winning that Big East tournament."
McGhee played sparingly in his first two seasons in the program as Blair's understudy. He became the starter after Blair left and has developed into a reliable defender and rebounder as well as a secondary scorer.
"What I really like about these guys is how all three of them have improved as the year has gone on," Dixon said. "You don't see that out of a lot out of seniors. You see, oftentimes, seniors getting to that point or taking a step backward. In no way can that be said about our guys. You can see their rise as the year as has gone on.
"You see Gary make some jump hooks in our run Wednesday night. You see Brad making play after play whether it be in the Villanova game or the Louisville game down the stretch. And then Gilbert making shots and defending well all the way through. That's the thing that separates them, for me, is their improvement."
Dixon said he tends not to get emotional on senior day because there is still so much more basketball to be played. The players, however, sense that the end is near.
"I've tried to avoid it," Brown said. "You sit there and try to think like it's never going to come to an end, but it is this Saturday. Sitting back and thinking of all the memories ... it's been a lot. We've come so far as players and people. It's crazy to think back as freshmen when we were 18 or 19 years old. You cherish this moment, and now, we have to move onto the real world."
First Published March 4, 2011 12:00 am