There was no team more underrated in the Big East than the Pittsburgh Panthers Men's basketball team.
Slated in preseason to finish somewhere around ninth in the Big East conference and not predicted to clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament, the Panthers have shut up the critics and shown they're still a force to be reckoned with.
After going on a difficult road trip and defeating the No. 5 Syracuse Orange, once-ranked Cincinnati, Connecticut, and an overtime win over Louisville on Saturday, the Panthers have cracked the Associated Press Top 10 as the ninth ranked team in the nation.
So to whom do we give credit for the success?
After last year's 31-5 season and the loss of many of last year's starters, including current NBA players Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, many expected this would be coach Jamie Dixon's first year of rebuilding the program.
The highlight of this year's squad is obviously the play of sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs.
After playing around 10 minutes per game last season, Gibbs has become a full-time starter, helping to lead his team to a 15-2 record out of nowhere.
Where did this rising star come from?
The answer lies in the offseason, where Gibbs put in extra time while playing for Coach Dixon's USA Under-19 team.
Coach Dixon had told Gibbs he would have to work on his defensive skills in order to gain more playing time during the tournament and on his own Panthers team. The switch in practice priority seemed to change Gibbs for the better. Now he was shooting more accurately than ever.
In the world championship tournament, Gibbs played around 22 minutes per game, averaging 9.8 points per game. He was a key factor during the summer of 2009 when he helped the USA defeat Greece 88-80 while scoring 13 points to secure the Under-19 World Championship.
Since that tournament, Gibbs has been playing his best ball. Currently averaging 43.3 percent from three-point range, he is one of the best three-point shooters in the country. His free throw percentage has increased drastically, giving him the fourth best free throw percentage in the nation at 93.1 percent.
Gibbs has quickly become the Panthers' best offensive player. He's scored 20 or more points in six games already this season. Every aspect of his game has improved.
Pittsburgh now has one of the best playing squads in the country.
Coach Dixon, known for his defensive play, has a great chance at securing a high seed for the NCAA tournament. Though they might not secure a No. 1 seed as they did last year, this year's squad seems poised to make a run in the Big Dance.
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