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Pitt Basketball: Previewing the Freshmen

Matt PowersCorrespondent IINovember 8, 2011

Pitt Basketball: Previewing the Freshmen

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    This year's Pitt basketball team features a very freshman-heavy roster. The Panthers have six freshmen, which includes a pair of redshirt freshmen who practiced but did not play last season

    With only seven other scholarship players on the roster, some of the freshmen will need to play a significant role early on. Since most of the freshmen were Top-100 recruits out of high school, and one was a McDonald's All-American, it shouldn't be too much to ask.

    This article will introduce you to those newcomers and tell you a little about their games.

Khem Birch

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    The 6'9" Canadian power forward was a McDonald's All-American and Top-10 recruit, making him the highest-rated recruit in Panthers history. Despite those accolades, Birch doesn't come without flaws and may struggle to see significant minutes once Big East play starts.

    Right now the strength of Birch's game is his ability to be a shot-blocking presence in the middle on defense. His rebounding ability will also be an asset to the Panthers, especially on the offensive end. He could potentially be the program's best offensive rebounder since DeJuan Blair, although he isn't quite on the level of Blair. His athleticism and ability to run the floor could be a bonus as well. 

    Birch is a skinny kid, weighing 210 pounds, and because of that he lacks the strength to really be able to bang inside against the likes of Herb Pope, Gus Gilchrist, Andre Drummond and Rakeem Christmas. He's also still quite raw, especially on the offensive end. Birch will do the bulk of his scoring in transition or after an offensive rebound, but his post game needs major work.

    Birch will play because it will be hard for Jamie Dixon to keep this talent off the court for a full year, but if the recent preseason scrimmages are any indication he may only be a role player. Birch could be a guy that averages between 10-15 minutes per game early on, and his play then will determine his role once Big East play rolls around. Unfortunately for him, most fans would see a year like this as a disappointment because of the hype he received.

Malcolm Gilbert

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    With the hype that Khem Birch received, some fans have overlooked Malcolm Gilbert. Gilbert is a 6'11" center that shot up the recruiting rankings after a strong senior season, and is now in the Top 75 for most recruiting services.

    Gilbert is a very promising defender in the post who could become a real intimidating force in the middle as a shot blocker. He is also a potential impact player on the boards, and as he adds strength he could get even better in that area.

    Like Birch, Gilbert is also skinny at 235 pounds. Also like Birch, his offensive game is behind his defense right now. He has the ability to improve on offense if he works at it, but right now he can't really be counted on as a scorer.

    Gilbert is like Birch in another way, in that both are highly-rated recruits who are likely to be role players this year, but Gilbert could potentially end up taking a redshirt season because the Panthers also have Birch, Talib Zanna, Dante Taylor and Nasir Robinson in the frontcourt. Reports from practice sound like Gilbert may have been even better than what the coaching staff expected, so there is a good chance he carves out a role this year.

John Johnson

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    John Johnson is a 6'1" combo guard out of Philadelphia. The long-time Pitt commitment is finally able to suit up and play and show the rest of the country that he was being underrated as a recruit.

    Johnson is more of a shooting guard than a true point guard, but can play both positions well. The strength of his game is his ability to score. Johnson is a tough player, which will serve him well in Big East play.

    Johnson may be a talented scorer, but he doesn't have much of a game from beyond the arc at this point. His defense can also use some work, something that could cost him playing time for a Jamie Dixon-led team.

    Johnson is a candidate to redshirt this year, but if he proves to be a strong ball handler or if Isaiah Epps struggles, he could end up playing a role this season behind Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall. Even if he sits out this season, Johnson has a bright future ahead of him in Pittsburgh as the next gritty Philly-born player to help lead the Panthers, following in the footsteps of Brad Wanamaker and Nasir Robinson.

Durand Johnson

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    Durand Johnson, a 6'7" wing player, was a Top 100 recruit from Baltimore who chose the Panthers in August of 2010. Johnson reminds me of the typical Pitt wing, making him an ideal fit for the program. 

    Johnson's best attribute is his ability to defend, as he is a potential lockdown on-ball defender. His offense is based off his mid-range game at this point. He is a smart player who knows how to play the game.

    Johnson's biggest weakness is the fact that he takes too many ill-advised contested shots. He must improve his shot selection to play significant minutes for Jamie Dixon.

    Johnson's role is yet to be determined this year. With Ashton Gibbs, Lamar Patterson, JJ Moore and Cameron Wright ahead of him at the shooting guard and small forward spots, he has his work cut out for him to carve out a role, but his defense could earn him playing time.

Isaiah Epps

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    At 6'2", Isaiah Epps is a bigger point guard, something that helps when he penetrates the lane to either score near the rim or dish the ball to an open man. He took a redshirt year last season in order to develop his game a bit more due to the depth the Panthers had in front of him.

    Epps is a big, penetrating point guard who came to campus best known for his ability to score, as he does a great job taking advantage of his quickness. His jump shot was also considered to be one of his best attributes.

    When he signed with Pitt, Epps' biggest weaknesses were that he looked to score more often than he looked to get his teammates involved and his defense was in need of work. He also was in need of work with his shot selection and not settling for a long-range shot on the fast break. The redshirt season has given him a year with the coaching staff to work with these issues.

    Epps is hoping to lock down a role in the Panthers rotation as a ball handler behind Travon Woodall and/or Ashton Gibbs. Epps could be the Panthers point guard of the future, but because of his size and scoring ability he could get a look at shooting guard as well if needed. Epps is expected to take on at least some role in the rotation.

Cameron Wright

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    Cameron Wright is a 6'5" wing from Cleveland who redshirted last season due to the Panthers depth on the wing. Wright, however isn't the typical redshirt player, as he was a Top 100 recruit out of high school.

    Wright is a very good athlete who can fill up the stat sheet as well as play strong defense. His rebounding ability from his position is very good and he takes advantage of his length and athleticism to create steals on the defensive end. Wright is also a fairly good shooter and strong finisher when he takes the ball to the rim.

    Wright's biggest weakness a year ago was the fact that he was raw and needed a year to develop his game under the direction of the Panthers coaching staff.

    Out of all the freshmen, Wright may have the biggest impact this season, and could potentially challenge for a starting spot or at least one of the top spots off the bench. Expect Wright to continue his development and eventually be one of the key players in the Pitt lineup, just as others such as Sam Young and Brad Wanamaker have done before.

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