As far as first years go, last year wasn't too bad for Jamie Dixon at Pitt. Win the conference regular-season title, make it to the Sweet 16.
Not bad for a guy who got the job last offseason after Ben Howland left for UCLA and the players campaigned to make sure the young assistant replaced him.
Last year's club had a lot of veterans, three of whom (starters Jaron Brown and Julius Page and reserve Toree Morris) graduated. But Carl Krauser and Chris Taft return as all-Big East candidates, and a host of newcomers hope to solve what was a problem last year --- putting the ball in the basket.
Anyone who saw last year's brutal Panther victory over Central Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament knows that the squad often had trouble finding the backboard, much less the net. But the Panthers came to play every night on the defensive end, and Carl Krauser was excellent in his first year starting at the point.
However, when Krauser was injured or ineffective, Taft and the inside guys had more trouble getting the ball in position for good shots, and the wing players found fewer open looks. The result was a lot of games where the Panthers took teams out of their games on one end of the court and kept them right in on the other.
Enter the new class. Junior college transfer John DeGroat, who may start right away, brings a reputation as a scorer. Same with freshman Keith Benjamin. Whether it's a newcomer or a veteran, someone will need to step it up as an offensive weapon.
The Panthers enter the season generally picked as a lower-top 20 team, third or fourth in the league. That may not be the respect this team wants, but Dixon doesn't mind. After all, it's what the experts predicted for last year as well.
STRENGTHS: First of all, few teams in the country defend better, and the Panthers have a very strong interior presence that can cause a lot of blocked or altered shots. Chris Taft will be a monster if he can build on last year's freshman season, and Carl Krauser is rock-solid at the point.
WEAKNESSES: Scoring points. Period. Last year's squad set the concept of offensive basketball back 40 years during its NCAA Tournament run, and it's tough even for a team as good defensively as the Panthers to win when the ball won't go in the basket.
LAST YEAR: 31-5 overall, 13-3 in the Big East; lost in Sweet 16 of NCAA tournament.
HEAD COACH: Jamie Dixon (career 31-5); second year at Pittsburgh (31-5).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's exciting to have new guys. We feel like we have a bunch of Vince Carters on our team. Fresher legs, they are all athletic, they all can play, and they all have good spirits. They play team basketball, and that's what we're all about; teamwork, hard work, commitment." -- Panthers guard Carl Krauser
SCOUTING THE NEWCOMERS: Junior college transfer John DeGroat is expected to make an instant impact and start on the wing. Freshmen Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin will both be expected to knock down perimeter shots from the tip of the opener (Alabama in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York's Madison Square Garden). If they can do so, it should open up the Panther offense considerably.
KEY EARLY-SEASON GAMES: Dec. 7 vs. Memphis -- There are an awful lot of cupcakes on the Panthers' preconference schedule, but this early season neutral-site contest at the Jimmy V Classic should give an early indication of whether or not the Panthers have lost a step from last season.
PROGRAM DIRECTION: Holding. It's tough to predict that this team will do better than the Sweet 16, which was the fate of the last three Panthers' squads, but it could easily make it that far again.
ROSTER REPORT: Forwards Tyrell Biggs, Mike Davis and Sam Young have given the Panthers verbal commitments for the class of 2005. ... Forward Ed Turner transferred to Central Florida Community College. ... Carl Krauser is one of 50 preseason candidates for the John Wooden Award, given to the college basketball player of the year.