Pitt Hoops Goes On The Run

Much has been made about what the Pitt men's basketball team has lost from last season, namely senior starters Aaron Gray, Levon Kendall and Antonio Graves and their 109 combined starts last season, but there's a chance that the Panthers could be even more successful this season.

Sure, Pittsburgh was 29-8, finished second in the Big East and qualified for its seventh straight NCAA Tournament, but leaner, more athletic players could make for a much more exciting and effective up-tempo style of play.

"We're very excited to get started, and we've very excited about this group,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We've really seen some dramatic changes in the guys, as far as weights and conditioning goes, and they've responded in a very positive manner and have even exceeded those goals.''

Dixon rattled off current weights and how much certain players lost. Some lost 5-10 pounds like senior Mike Cook, down to 212, while junior guard Levance Fields is down more than 20 pounds to 192. Freshman DeJuan Blair, whom Dixon said will compete for playing time at center, is around 270 pounds. That's a drastic drop from the 303 he carried on his 6-foot-7 frame early in the summer.

Blair's playing weight, Dixon said, "will be a big number, and sometimes we should weigh him morning and night,'' because it fluctuates. But that doesn't appear to matter to Blair, who should make an immediate impact and is just as effective utilizing a power game or stepping outside for a short jumper.

"I definitely like playing the five (center) position better,'' Blair said, "because I like to bang inside with guys my size. I have a lot of goals for myself, but mostly they concern the team. I want to help Pitt keep its winning tradition, and I want to take the program all the way in the NCAAs.''

Blair is among Pitt's seven new players, if redshirt freshmen Gilbert Brown and Austin Wallace are counted, but only Blair is expected to crack the starting lineup that also should include Cook, Fields, senior Ronald Ramon and junior Sam Young. Brown, senior guard Keith Benjamin, junior forward Tyrell Biggs, 6-10 junior Cassin Diggs, freshman forward Darnell Dodson, 6-10 frosh Gary McGhee and 6-4 freshman guard Brad Wanamaker should make the Panthers deeper and possibly more talented than ever.

"Oh, yes, we have a lot of talent this year, a lot of athletes,'' Fields said. "So, I expect to be pushing the ball up and down the court. We're still going to be a strong defensive team and our offense will run off that, too, but we're going to be moving the ball around more than we did last year when we mostly dumped it inside to Aaron in the halfcourt game.''

Dixon said that Young and Biggs will compete for the power forward spot with Biggs, who is down to 237 pounds this year, rotating some at center with Blair, Wallace, Diggs and McGhee. While that is a talented group, Pitt likely will be more guard-oriented this season with Fields and Ramon playing the point, although Ramon will likely open at shooting guard and Cook the small forward.

But Dixon noted that he expected the Panthers' four guards to rotate back and forth between the point and two spot. Wanamaker and Benjamin will rotate with Fields and Ramon. Brown will back up Cook and is stronger and tougher after a redshirt season. He could also play shooting guard to give Pitt a bigger lineup.

Pitt's schedule again is the toughest in the nation, according to Dixon, who said even though the Panthers were fourth in strength last year they "played more road games than the top three. And we're doing that this year as well,'' Dixon said. "If going on the road was easy, everyone would be doing it.''

Coach Rick Majerus and Saint Louis highlight an opening tournament at the Petersen Events Center Nov. 9-15, while games at Washington (Dec. 8), at home with Oklahoma State (Dec. 15), against Duke at Madison Square Garden (Dec. 20) and at Dayton (Dec. 29) are the top nonconference games.

Pitt opens Big East play on the road against Villanova (Jan. 6) and South Florida (Jan. 9) and then comes home to face Seton Hall (Jan. 12) and Georgetown (Jan. 14). The Panthers only play the Hoyas once and Louisville once at home (Feb. 24), while facing Connecticut (Feb. 2) and Marquette (Feb. 15) once each on the road.

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