GETTING INSIDE It might not have been as gut-wrenching as the Villanova shot that knocked the Panthers out of the NCAA Tournament at the brink of the Final Four a year ago, but the 2009-10 season was another that ended in crushing fashion for Pittsburgh.
The Panthers fell by three points in the second round to sixth-seeded Xavier, missing a pair of three-point attempts that would have tied the game in the final seconds. The 71-68 defeat marked the end of Jermaine Dixon's Pitt career, one win short of what would have been the sixth Sweet 16 appearance in nine seasons for the program.
Still, not many thought the Panthers would make it even this far in 2009-10. Losing four starters from the Elite Eight team a year ago, Pitt was expected to go through a rebuilding season this year. That was accentuated when it struggled early, losing Jamie Dixon to injury and Gilbert Brown to suspension at the start of the season.
But one thing about the Panthers under Dixon is that Pitt always surprises. With Ashton Gibbs emerging as a No. 1 scoring threat, Brad Wanamaker taking a huge step forward as a junior, and Jermaine Dixon providing both points and leadership once his foot healed, Pitt again surged to the top of the Big East. It tied for second in the regular season, and earned the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament and the NCAAs.
Ultimately, the talent and depth didn't match that of last year. When Gibbs became the target of opposing defenses, he found it less easy to score, and on any given night it was a crapshoot who would fill the void. The inside game often struggled to produce points unless Gilbert Brown was hot off the bench, and it was just short of where it needed to be in March.
However, Dixon and reserve Chase Adams are the only seniors, so the Panthers should be back stronger than ever when Midnight Madness rolls around this fall. By then, the pain of another close NCAA loss may finally have faded for the Panther faithful.
FINAL RECORD: 25-9, 13-5, tied for 2nd in the Big East.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: An awful lot went right for the Panthers in 2009-10. And it all starts with a guard who was just a designated three-point shooter in 2008-09, when the then-seniors were running the show.
Ashton Gibbs was a role player as a freshman, but when forced to take on a bigger role in his sophomore season he emerged as an offensive force and led the team in scoring.
That helped the Panther make a surprising run to second place in the Big East. Jermaine Dixon, Gilbert Brown and Brad Wanamaker were among the players who took their games to another level to help make that happen.
WHAT WENT WRONG: The bottom line is that the preseason prognosticators weren't exactly wrong. Talent-wise, the team was about in the middle of the pack in the Big East, and it needed all the parts to be working at the same time in order to win. Particularly on offense.
When Gibbs began to attract more defensive attention as the season went on, point became harder to come by. And without the scoring punch of DeJuan Blair and Sam Young inside, the easy points in the paint weren't there for most of the season. With Gary McGhee not much of a scorer and Dante Taylor struggling in his freshman season, the Panthers couldn't count on its frontcourt for easy buckets as it has in the past.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think this group had total confidence in themselves. Some people may look at it as a surprise. I know we weren't picked that high. But where we got to, but there's disappointment in that locker room and really a feeling that we didn't win a game that we felt we should have won." -- Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, on his team reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to Xavier.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THE GOOD NEWS: With the exception of Jermaine Dixon, the key members of the Panther rotation all return in 2009-10, and will be augmented by another strong recruiting class.
Bradley Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs should be even better in their second year as starters, and if Dante Taylor can start to fulfill the hype he came onto campus with the frontcourt should be much-improved.
THE BAD NEWS: You're down by two at a critical stage in the game. Who gets the ball?
That's a question that had no wrong answer in 2008-09, as both Sam Young and DeJuan Blair could get the ball into position to get a good look at the basket. The shots didn't always go in, but they were always quality attempts. Those were harder to come by in 2009-10, especially inside, and it's unclear how that will change next season.
KEY RETURNEES: Leading scorer Ashton Gibbs will be back for his junior season. After averaging 15.6 points per game as a sophomore, he'll be a marked man as a junior, but give him a crack of daylight and he's shown he can find the basket. With Brad Wanamaker also returning, the Panthers should have one of the top backcourts in the conference.
The entire frontcourt returns, most notably Gilbert Brown, Nasir Robinson and Gary McGhee. Watch for a big season for Dante Taylor, who came out of high school with a lot of hype but struggled in Big East play as a freshman.
--F Lamar Patterson will apply for a medical redshirt during the offseason. The freshman missed much of his initial season, but he did play in 10 games and among his highlights were a pair of three-pointers in a November loss to Texas.
--G Ashton Gibbs was named the Big East's Most Improved Player for the 2009-10 season. It marks the sixth time in the past 11 seasons a Panther has earned the honor.
--C Gary McGhee had never averaged more that 1.5 points or 1.5 rebounds per game in his first two years on campus. But with the big men from previous years gone, he blossomed as a junior, averaging more than seven points and 6.8 rebounds per game while recording three double-doubles.
Final Pitt Basketball Notebook
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