Pitt hoops open practice

The University of Pittsburgh basketball team enters the 2006-2007 season with extremely high expectations. Head Coach Jamie Dixon is set to battle with a deep and talented roster of players. PantherDigest.com Senior Writer Dale Grdnic reports on the Panthers upcoming season and the opening of practice. Read on for details.

PITTSBURGH -- The University of Pittsburgh women's basketball team was ranked 24th in one preseason poll, much to the surprise of its coach and players, but being ranked isn't uncharted territory for the Pitt men's squad.

The Panthers, in fact, expect to be rated each season and rarely get too excited about the prospect. But with eight players returning from its top 10 from last season, Pitt not only expected to be highly ranked, it embraced the notion, as practice opened Saturday.

The Panthers weren't disappointed, either, as they were ranked as high as third in one preseason poll going into the fourth season with Jamie Dixon as the head coach. Pitt was 25-8 last season.

"Sure, we're happy to be ranked real high in the preseason, but that's not when it counts,'' senior center Aaron Gray said. "We're more concerned about where we're ranked at the end after the tournaments.''

That's been a problem for the Panthers. Even though the Big East is by far the toughest conference overall, Pitt's weak nonconference schedule has caused them to get low seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Even after the Panthers finished second in the Big East Tournament last spring, they got a tough opening draw in the national event.

That shouldn't be a concern this season. Pitt opens against Western Michigan Nov. 12 at the Maggie Dixon Classic in West Point, N.Y. Maggie, Jamie's younger sister, died unexpectedly after leading Army's women to their first NCAA bid in March. Other nonconference games include trips to Auburn (Dec. 3), Wisconsin (Dec. 16) and Oklahoma State (Dec. 21).

The Panthers also play host to rebuilding cross-city rival Duquesne (Dec. 6), Florida State (Nov. 24) and Washington (Feb. 17). Then, there's the Big East schedule with home-and-home contests against Georgetown, Marquette and West Virginia. They also play host to Connecticut (Jan. 16) and Louisville (Feb. 12) and visit Cincinnati (Jan. 24) and Villanova (Jan. 29).

"When you throw in the Big East schedule, it probably will be up there, on paper, as the toughest schedule in the country,'' Dixon said.

Pitt appears to have the horses to carry it through the schedule with seniors Gray, guard Antonio Graves and forward Levon Kendall, juniors Keith Benjamin, Ronald Ramon and Mike Cook (transfer) and sophomores Levance Fields, Tyrell Biggs and Sam Young. Along with Cook, newcomers include frosh Gilbert Brown, Geoff Rizk and Austin Wallace. Brown will miss several weeks with mononucleosis, but the eight returning players and Cook should comprise Dixon's lineup rotation this season.

The Panthers must replace leading scorer and four-year starter Carl Krauser and John DeGroat.

"We have a lot of guys who can pick up the slack for those guys,'' Ramon said. "We're all a year older, which will make a big difference with the freshmen from last year, and we had a great offseason.''

Krauser's leadership and team-best 15 points per game will be sorely missed, but the next seven scorers all return. Gray averaged 13.9 points and 10.5 rebounds last season, but he is in much better condition to handle the rigors of a lengthy regular season and tournaments. Ramon (8.0), Young (7.9), Kendall (7.0), Fields (6.8), Graves (5.0) and Benjamin (4.6) should improve as well. And Cook is a noted sharpshooter.

"I'm sure expectations are high with our fans, but they're very high with us as well,'' Kendall said. "We worked so hard in the offseason to get to this point, and we just have to follow that with a solid few practice weeks to get ready for the season. But we're looking forward to it.''

Dixon noted that Young worked on his defense and Graves worked hard to play a more physical game, while Fields and Ramon improved their shooting and ballhandling skills to handle the point.

"We both can do it, but I think we'll both be in the game at the same time, too,'' Fields said. "Ronald can shoot so well from the perimeter, and that will open it up for me to penetrate or dump it off inside. That will make us even more dangerous this season.''

And keep expectations high from start to finish this season.

Notes: Pitt has two exhibition games this year, Nov. 1 against Carnegie Mellon and Nov. 4 against California (Pa.) at 7:30 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center. ... Five national publications believe that the Panthers will win the Big East this season, while Gray was chosen as a second-team All-American by two magazines. ... And Young and Ramon were named as emerging stars by Athlon.

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