There's obviously been a lot of hype surrounding this Pitt team in the offseason. Last year's team returned one total start entering last year. Still, the Panthers were able to finish 25-9 and advance to its ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
Pitt took a trip to Ireland, where they were granted 14 practices for the Ireland trip, which the Panthers completed with an undefeated 6-0 record.
The Panthers return seniors Brad Wanamaker (12.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Gilbert Brown (10.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and Gary McGhee (6.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg). McGhee attended the LeBron James Skills Academy this summer--one of a handful of junior prospects selected for the event. Junior Ashton Gibbs (15.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg) is a preseason All-Big East selection.
Then there's the adversity of waiting for freshman guard Isaiah Epps waiting to become eligible so he could join the team. Epps missed out on playing with the others in the summer league, and also missed out on the Ireland trip. He did get his coursework at Hargrave Military Academy in order, and was able to be on campus for the start of school in August. Two weeks ago, Nasir Robinson had right knee surgery, and is expected to be out four to six weeks. The team was also without the serives of senior guard Gilbert Brown for the Blue-Gold scrimmage and the first exhibition game. Lamar Patterson--slated to start in the exhibition opener against Northwood--also had to miss that first exhibition game.
It's been a mix of adversity and expectations, and Dixon still says there's a lot to sort through.
"You never feel like you have enough time (to prepare)," Dixon said. "In no way do we have everything in. We've gotten everything in as far as attacking defenses. (Rhode Island) has played some 1-3-1 before. They're pressing constantly."
There's also a lot of hype surrounding this year's Rhode Island Rams. Rhode Island is entering their season with heavy expectations on a different level. The Rams are coming off a 26-10 campaign last year, and are setting their sights on getting to the NCAA Tournament this year.
The Rams return four seniors in Marquis Jones (5.7 ppg, 4.1 apg in 2009-10), Will Martrell (7.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg in 2009-10), Delroy James (13.2 ppg, 5.3 ppg in 2009-10), and Ben Eaves (3.1 ppg, 1.3 rpg in 2009-10). Martrell (7-0, 245), James (6-8, 220) and Eaves (6-7, 225) create a challenge in terms of size, while Jones is the biggest threat out of the backcourt. This senior class begins the season with 70 wins, and needs another 19 wins to tie the school-mark for most wins by a senior class--an impressive mark for a group of seniors that have not been to the NCAA Tournament. The Rams are looking for their first NCAA berth since 1999.
Even though the experience lies in the frontcourt, Dixon said this week that Jim Baron's teams have always relied heavily on their guards. Though the Rams have size, this team will sneak in some of its younger guards such as sophomores Akeem Richmond and Daniel West.
"Their point guard play is pretty good; Jones does a good job running their team," Dixon said. "They've got experienced guards, but James is a guy that can make things happen on his own. He likes to take people off the dribble. Coach Baron has always been a guy who likes to use smaller guys on the floor and play them against some bigger guys."
Pitt is looking to build upon a sluggish win over IUP, where the Panthers turned the ball over 12 times. The coaching staff and the players were not pleased with the defensive effort and the rebounding effort, and are hoping they don't start off slow as they did on Thursday night. Wanamaker, the senior guard, said the team responded with an up-tempo practice on Saturday.
"We switched it up, got into different groups," Wanamaker said. "We were clicking. I guess we learned our lesson from IUP. We came with energy. We got at each other. We got a little bit more physical. Scoop (Jardine) said (in an ESPN the Magazine article) that we're a dirty team, but our last game, we didn't play like that dirty team."
As Dixon alluded to, he is not set on finding rotations. His philosophy is more about developing the individual player. It will be interesting to see if he goes with the same lineup he went with on Thursday night. In last Sunday's exhibition opener, Dixon emptied the bench and played all 12 players that were available. Thursday against IUP, he got Lamar Patterson and Gilbert Brown back, but only played 10.
On top of everything else that has Dixon worried about the early start, getting set on a rotation or developing the different sets that he will employ based on some players playing different positions, will be a tough task in this early part of the season.
"You play to your strengths, and you always want to get guys in the right position to make them successful," Dixon said. "We'll have some adjustments to it. Gilbert was a completely unique situation (against IUP) because of not playing for about two weeks. I decided we really had to get twenty minutes out of him, no matter what. He played like a guy who hadn't played for two weeks. The longer guys are out, the harder it is for them to get back into it. That is a hard adjustment.
"I feel comfortable with the group we had starting (against IUP), so we'll probably start the same group. It's always something new. You're never locked in to anything."