Make no doubt, Pittsburgh will have a target on its back, not only because it is the defending regular season champion in the Big East, but also because its school has chosen to jump along with Syracuse to the ACC.
The Panthers look like they again have the goods to withstand any onslauight, despite suffering a lot of losses from last year's team.
In guard Ashton Gibbs they may have the Big East's top player. Gibbs was named the conference's preseason Player of the Year at Big East Media Day and has been nominated both by the Naismith and Wooden committees. He comes into his senior season with 1,207 points while hitting 216 of 490 3-point shots, which is 44.1 percent, and 233 of 265 free throws, 87.9 percent.
Asked what he hopes Gibbs focused on in the offseason, coach Jamie Dixon answered:
"Hopefully, defense. That's what we talked about. It's step by step. I saw him with a real focus on the defensive end."
Gibbs brings leadership and experience and will be working with a group of strong players who fit Dixon's physical but refined system.
Nasir Robinson, a forward currently out with a knee problem but expected back by the first game, is the only other starter but seven of the top 10 scorers and seven of the top 10 in minutes played last year return.
There are a lot of players available who can play the game, including a freshman forward named Khem Birch who was a McDonald's All-American and may be capable enough defensively to step right in and play.
--Pitt comes into the year seeking an 11th consecutive NCAA Tournament bid and an 11th straight season of 20 or more victories in the conference that is acknowledged as the toughest in the nation.
--Pitt ranks among the nation's top five programs in winning percentage over the last 10 years, going 273-71 for a .794 percentage. It has won six Big East titles but has not reached the Final Four during that time.
--Senior G Ashton Gibbs is one of 50 preseason selections as candidates for All-America honors by the John Wooden Award committee. Gibbs, who is a second year Wooden nominee, also enters his senior season as a Naismith Award nominee. As a junior, Gibbs earned All-Big East First Team honors and was named as an AP All-America honorable mention selection. In 2010-11, Gibbs led Pitt in scoring (16.8 ppg), ranked third nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (49.0), led the Big East in 3-point field goals made (102) and ranked second in the league in free-throw percentage (88.9).
LAST YEAR: 28-6 overall, 15-3 in the Big East
HEAD COACH: Jamie Dixon, 9th year as head coach (216-60 at Pittsburgh; 216-60 career)
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's definitely a surreal moment. When I first stepped on the Pitt campus, I didn't think of being player of the year or anything like that. I just wanted to play. Now, being named preseason player of the year, this is definitely something I cherish. Hopefully, I live up to it." -- Senior G Ashton Gibbs on being named the preseason Big East Player of the year.
LINEUP BREAKDOWN: Pitt has all the makings of a national contender, with a scoring threat from guard in Ashton Gibbs, solid point guard play from Travon Woodall, a rebounding power forward in Nasir Robiknson and a couple of freshmen in Khem Birth and Malcolm Gilbert who can rebound and play defense. Dixon also doesn't worry about lacking balance in scoring. "I think it will be pretty balanced. We've got some guys who can put the ball in the basket, but we have guys who can do a lot of other things well, too," he said. "We've been very good offensively. We've put guys in position to score. ESPN had that stat that we're the most efficient team in the country the last five years. That goes unnoticed. It's a good indicator that we've found some ways to score. We'll put our guys in the right position to score. We won't be relying on one or two scorers."
SCOUTING THE NEWCOMERS: F Khem Birch is a McDonald's All-American from Montreal who played at Notre Dame Academy in Massachusetts. He was considered the best shot blocker in the recruiting class and has worked on getting stronger, putting on 10 pounds already. He needs some work on his offense but fits in well with Coach Jamie Dixon's philosophy.
C Malcolm Gilbert is a freshman out of Smyra, Del., and the Academy of the New Church in Pennsylvania. At 6-11, he is the kind of player Dixon likes in the middle and he has already added 14 pounds to get ready for the Big East season. Like Birch, he's a shot blocker with a huge wingspan. He also is a strong enough student to have considered the Ivy League.
F Durand Johnson is a combo forward out of Baltimore and Brewster Academy of New Hampshire who comes with a reputation of being a shooter with NBA range. The Panthers describe him as a player who "is fun to watch and plays with a toughness." For much of the year Brewster was No. 1 in the nation last year.
G John Johnson is a 6-1 kid from Philly who went to Life Center Academy in New Jersey and who has an all-court game with a big motor. Philadelphia has been good to Pitt in recent years, sending Mike Cook, Brad Wanamaker and Nasir Robinson.
--G Ashton Gibbs is the fifth Panther to be named Big East preseason player of the year. The others were Charles Smith, Jerome Lane, Brandin Knight and Aaron Gray.
--PF Nasir Robinson was to undergo surgery on Oct. 21 to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee and he is expected to miss three weeks, but be ready to start the season. He underwent a similar operation last year and missed the season's first three games. Robinson averaged 9.4 points and 4.9 rebounds in 31 games for the Panthers. Sophomore Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore will get a chance in practice while Robinson is out.
--PG Travon Woodall, who finished second in assist-to-turnover ratio in the Big East last season, was slowed by various injuries during the offseason but he is expected to be fine through preseason practice. He averaged 2.3 assists to turnovers, the same as the man he shared backcourt time with last year, Brad Wannamaker.