Will Pitt basketball be better next season?

Though it seems hard to imagine that a program as excellent as Pittsburgh has had over the last three years has still not peaked, I have news for you. The best may be yet to come.

Even with the departure of fan favorites Jaron Brown and Julius Page, the Panthers arguably will have the best team they have ever had. That's certainly a mouthful for a program that will average around 30 wins a season over the last three years. How can such a statement be made? Follow along.

The Panthers have gone through their amazing run of dominance with two major team skills- defense and rebounding. Sure, Pitt players are known for their tenacity, attitude, and desire. But those traits, when unleashed on a basketball court, materialize in two aspects of the game. You guessed it. Defense and rebounding.

One would have to assume that, even without two of their better defense players in Brown and Page, that aspect of the team's game would not be diminished much. Senior Chevon Troutman and sophomore Chris Taft display their defense prowess in different ways, but both are just as deadly. Troutman uses his superior strength and balance to continually push his opponent off the blocks. With one tree truck of a leg planted on the ground, and one hard knee in the opponent's backside, Troutman takes his opponent so far out of where he needs to be that once he gets it, there is not much he can do with it. Taft, on the other hand, uses his leaping ability to his advantage. One of the quickest leapers in the game, Taft rises quickly to block shots or alter others.

Both use their respective gifts for rebounding also, with Troutman mastering the offensive rebound tip back to the top of key better than anyone else in the country. Taft is on the verge of becoming an elite rebounder with his long arms, athleticism, tenacity, and once again, his amazingly quick jumping ability.

Replacing Brown will be junior college star, John DeGroat. DeGroat is not as good defensively as Brown, but may very well be a better rebounder. As one of his junior college coaches says about him, "if he wants a rebound, he will get it". DeGroat is also more athletic than Brown and a lot better shooter. He has genuine NBA potential.

The frontcourt reserves will include long-armed senior Mark McCarroll and hulking Aaron Gray. McCarroll made huge strides this season and will be an excellent offensive frontcourt sub off the bench. Gray will be plenty good enough for 10 minutes a game to give Taft a rest. He is a very good passer for a big man, has great size, and good offensive skills. He looks to be an upgrade over the mercurial and often frustrating Toree Morris, who will be the third Panther to graduate.

So, even with the loss of two seniors, including one of the most popular Panthers ever in Brown, Pitt actually will have a much more talented and deep frontcourt next season. Now on to the backcourt.

Carl Krauser was probably the best player on the team as a sophomore and was easily the most valuable. When Pitt needed a big play, it was Krauser that was involved. The only problem this season is that nobody else on the team is even close to having point guard caliber ball handling skills. Enter Ronald Ramon.

Ramon has the savvy of a New York City point guard, which is exactly what he is. A veteran of the rigors of NYC and AAU ball, Ramon will not be your average true freshman. Ramon is very good defensively and is an excellent outside shooter, but mostly he has the chutzpah to put a team on his shoulders and lead them. Very few point guards have that to the degree that Ramon does. He will back up Krauser and probably be the first guard off of the bench.

The shooting guard, replacing Page, will be freshman Keith Benjamin. Like Page, Benjamin is very good defensively, but unlike Page whose excellence lies in his positioning, Benjamin uses his quickness to make a lot of steals. He also has the potential to be a better shooter than Page, who has shown to be somewhat inconsistent over his career. Like Page, Benjamin can soar and has a vast array of dunks. While it may be heresy to some, he probably is even a better dunker than Page. And while he is an excellent outside shooter, he must take it to the basket a lot more, rather than roam too much on the perimeter. It's a habit that Page was never able to break.

While Krauser, Benjamin, and Ramon figure to be the top three guards, the third and fourth guards from this year, Antonio Graves and Yuri Demetris, may also may be back, though it's very possible that Demetris will not want to be back as the fifth guard.

So let's add this up. For the first time in Pitt's run they will have both a scoring option in the frontcourt in Taft, and in the backcourt, with Krauser. DeGroat also has the potential to be an excellent offensive player next season, which would make the Panther offense as deadly as the defense. Unlike this year, they will have a competent point guard to spell Krauser. Unlike this year, they have excellent outside shooters with Benjamin, Ramon, and DeGroat who all have superb offensive skills. The depth will be better with at least Ramon, Graves, McCarroll, and Gray coming off the bench. This does not even include wildcards like Dante Milligan, Ed Turner, and Levon Kendall, three talented players that haven't been heard from yet.

So the defense and rebounding should be as great as ever, and the offense and depth will be a lot better. Don't look now, but Pitt may very well be the best team in the country going into next season. And this despite losing two legendary players. It may be time for the rest of the country to realize that this program is not a flash in the pan. And instead may be about to make it's claim as the best in the land.

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