In just two years, Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs has become a highly decorated player. He's been a two-time Big East Academic All-Star, and will be a candidate for Academic All-America honors this season. As a sophomore last year, Gibbs led the Panthers with 15.7 points a game, a free throw percentage of 88.4% (137-of-155) as well as 78 of Pitt's 181 three-pointers.
Though it makes sense for Gibbs to earn his spot on the preseason All-Big East team, it is the first of what could be many to come this season. Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon saw a big improvement in Gibbs from freshman to sophomore year--a big key why Pitt was able to make it to an NCAA Tournament for a ninth consecutive year, despite having to replace so much entering the season.
"Ashton is one of those guys who does it better than others; getting by people," Dixon said. "As much as he scored, getting by people, people are going to be looking for him. When he gets by them, it's not always going to be to score. It's to get other guys shots.
"I think if he gets by a guy, or raises a guy up, he's got to be able to get in the lane and make someone else guard him, and find that open man. I saw improvement in that area."
Gibbs was third on the team last year with 62 assists, behind leading assist-man Brad Wanamaker (160) and Travon Woodall (108). It's a natural thing for a point guard on a Jamie Dixon-coached team to have those same leadership traits. Brandin Knight, Carl Krauser and Levance Fields are just a few examples. Gibbs looks to follow along those same lines. When Dixon talks of Gibbs' leadership abilities, he compares it to what he's doing on the floor.
"I think (leadership) is something we emphasize in our program," Dixon said. "Some guys do it better than others."
While Gibbs made a certain transition statistically, as a player, he now makes a transition to becoming more of a team leader. Despite already having strong leadership in its senior class, one more in the junior Gibbs won't hurt. In fact, he sees it as a natural part of his point guard position.
"I definitely want to be a leader," Gibbs said. "It's part of being a junior now, and at the same time, it's the point guard position. I just got to live up to it, basically, and show some of these young guys what to do in certain situations."
Interestingly, when Gibbs came here as a freshman, it was during Pitt's run to the Elite team--a team that included mainstays Levance Fields, Dejuan Blair, Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs. Clearly, the type of leadership that was on that team left a mark on Gibbs.
"(Leadership), I think just being raised right; it comes from the high school programs, and everything," Gibbs said. "It comes from the guys in the past; Levance, Sam, Dejuan, Tyrell. All those guys had really good attitudes, and we saw that. We treated them as role models and carried that on to our game."
Once the leadership trait is earned, there are two things key in the Big East season. One is competing in the Big East each night, knowing that no game--home or away--is a given. How does Gibbs suggest the team get through that?
"We just have to have the underdog mentality," Gibbs said. "Keep working hard every day; just fight like we're losing. It's like that at practice every day. Coach is out there pushing us to the limit."
Then there are the expectations. Pitt was voted as the preseason favorite, on Wednesday, to win the Big East regular-season title, receiving 12 out of a possible 16 first-place votes. As a leader, it's up to Gibbs on how to keep the players around him grounded.
"That's what we got to live up to," Gibbs said. "I think we're doing well so far. It's not only on the court, it's off the court as well. Now, we just have to keep it up."
Now that he is a leader on the team, he sees himself helping younger players such as J.J. Moore, Cameron Wright and Isaiah Epps become a deeper and even more talented team than it already is--just as the seniors on the Elite Eight team two years ago did for him.
"Everybody's doing well, they've been doing really well," Gibbs said. "I think the younger guys, the thing I like about them is that they listen and they work hard. With the talent that they already have, it already helps them.
"I think (depth) helps a lot; the fact that anyone can go off at any given time. Our scouting report is going to be tough to deal with this year. Our team, you just never know (who will step up). Our team is so deep. Practice is going to make us better each and every day."