Pitt Can't Wait For NCAAs To Begin

After getting unceremoniously dumped in its opening game at the Big East Tournament last week, the Pitt men's basketball team enters the NCAA Tournament with a chip on its shoulder.

While some might believe that's too much weight to lug through an NCAA run, it should be noted that the Panthers have been playing that way all season after being picked to finish ninth in their Conference and not even make the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, Pittsburgh had a solid 24-7 regular-season record and was 13-5 in the Big East to earn the No. 2 seed. Despite the opening loss in the Conference Tournament, the Panthers received a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and face No. 14 Oakland, Mich. (26-8), the Summit League champion, Friday at 2:55 p.m. at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisc.

"Sure, it's great for this program for us to get a No. 3 seed and make the tournament after everybody doubted us,'' Pitt junior guard Bradley Wanamaker said. "But, really, it won't be a success for us if we don't win some more games.

"We definitely want to go farther than last year. We want to go to the Final Four and win the national championship. We're not comfortable with where we're at right now. We have goals we still want to accomplish, so we'll go for that. And we're starting with Oakland.

"That Big East loss really put a bad taste in our mouths,'' Wanamaker added. "It did the same thing last year, but we didn't let it affect us. We played pretty well and went to the Elite Eight. But we want to take this program to another level this year.''

Wanamaker, redshirt junior forward Gilbert Brown, junior center Gary McGhee and sophomore Ashton Gibbs all have some NCAA experience, although they weren't integral parts of the Panthers before this year. That gives them motivation to make their own marks in the Tournament.

"Being one of the main contributors to the team this year brings a little more excitement for me,'' Brown said. "This is a business trip for us, so we're going to work hard. But we're also going to enjoy it. Oakland is a good team, and I know they're going to give us a tough game.

"I don't know if they're comparable to any other Big East team, but they have two outstanding players and a lot of good guys around them. And they're a well-coached team. It's going to be a tough matchup, but I think it's going to be a great matchup. I'm looking forward to it.''

Wanamaker believes that since the team can be one-and-done with an upset loss to the Golden Grizzlies, Pitt is much more focused this week.

"Going to the NCAA Tournament, we're all very excited to get back on the court,'' Wanamaker said. "We know it's a one-game elimination, and that makes us work even harder to be successful. We're a very hard-working team, but we're more dedicated going into the NCAAs because we don't want our season to end.

"Oakland, they're the underdog, so they're looking for an upset. And that has to be in the back of your mind to worry about, but we just have to play our game. They're a good rebounding team with a good big man down low and strong guard play, so we just have to come out and play our game and set the tempo right away.''

Gibbs echoed those sentiments, and he believed that last year's experience could pave the way for future success by the program.

"It's a lot more exciting for me, my second NCAA Tournament, and I know what it takes to get the job done after what we accomplished last year,'' Gibbs said. "We have a couple more practices in to get ready for Oakland, and I know we'll get there.

"They have a very versatile team with good size, a strong big man inside and good guards who can shoot the ball well, especially off the dribble. We got a good scouting report from our coaches, and now it's our job to go out there and execute the best that we can.''

Nasir Robinson played sparingly last season, but the sophomore forward can't wait to face Oakland for the first of hopefully many NCAA starts.

"Yeah, I'm pretty excited to get going,'' Robinson said. "We just want to execute our offense and play our game on defense, and we'll be fine if we can do that. Their big guy, he's a pretty good player. He gets a lot of touches around the basket, but he also can step out for a mid-range shot.

"So, we have to keep him from getting the ball, and if he gets it we can't let him get in a good position to shoot. We need to work him hard to make him take tough shots. If we can do that, we should be pretty successful against him. But they have some other guys for our guards to watch.''

Redshirt freshman point guard Travon Woodall is looking forward to his initial foray into the NCAA Tournament after sitting out last season.

"I made the trip last year, but I wasn't playing,'' Woodall said. "So, even though we were very successful, it was tough on me. This year, I'm a contributor on this team, and I'm looking forward to getting into the game and making things happen to help my team win.

"I think I came into this season pretty confident, but as the season went on and my minutes decreased I really started to lose my confidence. Since I only played a couple minutes, I didn't want to mess up and I tried to do too much in a short period of time.

"Little by little, I started to get my confidence back in practice and then in games,'' Woodall added. "And now, I'm not even thinking about making a mistake or trying to do too much. I'm just playing hard and letting the game come to me, and I think that makes me a better player.''

Freshman Dante Taylor also is making his first NCAA appearance.

"This is very exciting for me to play in my first NCAA Tournament,'' Taylor said. "It's something I dreamed about since I was a little kid, and I'm really looking forward to it in my freshman year, and I want to do whatever I can to help my team win a championship.''

And as the Panthers have said time and again, winning an NCAA title is their ultimate goal this season.

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