A Look Toward the Panthers' Future

With the 2003-04 season at the halfway mark, it may be a good time to look towards next season, and how the Panthers will be assembled.

Gone will be the most successful seniors in the history of Pitt basketball. The class of Julius Page, Jaron Brown, and Toree Morris have not only won more games of any class, they are on pace to make it very difficult for any future class to approach. Included in their accomplishments is a remarkable record of 73-11 in the past two and a half years.

The Panthers have succeeded in flourishing without Ben Howland and Brandin Knight, and next year will prove to be another stern test. Let's take a look at how they will try to accomplish this feat, position by position:

Guards
Bullish and flashy Carl Krauser will be back for his junior year at the point, his second year after replacing the supposedly irreplaceable Knight. The fear involving Krauser entering this season revolved around his playground style and its place in a conservative, old school system. Krauser has shown that there was nothing to worry about. He has played much more under control this season, leading the team in minutes, points, assists, and free throw percentage. At nearly 80% from the free throw line, he has become a weapon at the end of a game, rather than the liability that was Knight's free throw shooting.

The favorite for the shooting guard spot will be true freshman Keith Benjamin. At only 6'1", he doesn't possess ideal size for the position, but his positives number so many that it won't matter. Blessed with excellent jumping ability and great outside shooting, Benjamin has the ability to eventually be better than Page. Both display great defense, athletic ability, and long range shooting, but Benjamin adds the ball handling skills and mid-range shooting that Page lacks. It would be hard for Benjamin to match as a freshman what Page has done as a senior, but the drop-off will not be severe.

Yuri Demetris will be a senior if he stays, but that seems unlikely. He would be no better than the fifth guard and he will likely decide to play elsewhere. He already was on the verge of quitting this season, but Dixon asked him to come back. It appears unlikely that will happen next time.

Backing up Benjamin will be sophomore Antonio Graves. The 6'3" sophomore combo guard has been a pleasant surprise this season providing solid minutes and even replacing Krauser at the point when Krauser was injured.

Backing up Krauser, and possibly being his heir apparent, will be 6'0" true freshman Ronald Ramon. A great leader with good defense and excellent three point shooting skills, Ramon should get solid minutes both backing up Krauser and providing an extra outside shooter.

While the guard position will be very young with a sophomore and two true freshmen among the four, it will be provide the most talent and depth the Panthers have had at the position for quite some time.

Forwards
As a former partial qualifier, Chevon Troutman will have to be on pace to graduate to return to play for the Panthers next season. His return is crucial as losing Page and Brown will be difficult enough. The power forward with the great hands and tenacity is having another solid season, and while he may not be the superstar many have predicted for him after last season, he is a very good player on both ends of the floor.

At small forward, the favorite to try to replace Brown will be junior college star John DeGroat. At 6'6" he is taller than Brown, and as a college soccer player and track performer, he may be a better athlete than Brown. But replacing Brown's heart and tenacity may be impossibility. DeGroat, a solid shooter and very good rebounder, has NBA talent. The Panthers don't expect him to be the leader Brown is, but they hope he can at least match Brown's production.

The first forward off the bench, assuming he returns, will be Mark McCarroll. He will be twenty-four years old next season and may decide to get on with his life, possibly getting paid to play outside of the country. But, assuming he stays, and he has not said anything to the contrary, he will provide the same 6'11" spark he has this season.

There are also questions as to whether Ed Turner, who will be a 6'6" redshirt sophomore next season, will return. Turner has talent but has not seen the floor much. With Pitt aggressively recruiting small forwards, the writing may be on the wall for him.

Other forwards coming off the bench include redshirt sophomore Levon Kendall, a 6'10" Canadian with a promising future and 6'8" redshirt freshman Dante Milligan, a wiry rebounder.

One interesting scenario involving the forwards is the possible signing of top 25 SF Juan Diego Tello Palacios. Pitt is among the favorites to land his services, and if they do, he will play a lot, possibly starting over DeGroat. Palacios is a big-time scorer with a giant small forward body at 6'8" 250 pounds.

Centers
Starting at center again, provided he doesn't jump early to the NBA, is 6'10" 250 pound stud Chris Taft, who will be a sophomore next season. He possesses excellent athleticism for a big man, a solid post up game, excellent passing, and very good shot blocking skills. But most impressively, he has the calm demeanor under pressure that the great ones possess. His future is unlimited.

Taft took over the starting nod from Toree Morris, who won't be back. Morris never could harness his ability and his loss will not create a large void.

Backing up Taft will be 7'0" 290 pound true sophomore Aaron Gray. A body made for the pounding of the Big East - good passing skills and a solid game in the paint makes Gray's future very promising.

Summary
Losing Knight and Howland was hard, but losing Page and Brown may be even more difficult. Both are huge fan favorites and, more importantly, great warriors on the floor. Benjamin and DeGroat may actually have more talent, but replacing the heart and tenacity displayed by the departing seniors may be impossible. But, for the Panthers to prove they are going to stay among the elite, the torch must be passed from Page and Brown to Troutman, McCarroll, and Krauser, who will eventually pass it to Taft, DeGroat, Benjamin, and Ramon.

That's what great programs do. They have players pass their experience, wisdom, and heart down to those who will be their heir apparent. Next year will be the Panthers' toughest test yet in that regard.


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