Pitt Basketball: Are the Panthers Ready for the Big East Season?

Matt Shetler@@buccos12Correspondent IDecember 23, 2010

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 18:  Head coach Jamie Dixon of the Pittsburgh Panthers gives instructions against the Maryland Terrapins during the 2k Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 18, 2010 in New York, New York.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Wednesday's victory over American improved No. 6 Pitt's record to 12-1 on the young season. The next big challenge for head coach Jamie Dixon and the Panthers is the long grind that is the Big East season.

Are the Panthers ready for it?

They will need to be, as the Big East currently has five teams in the Coaches Top 25 Poll.

The first 13 games of the season saw the usual lackluster competition for a Big East team that faces such a tough conference schedule, but the Panthers did have victories over quality teams in Rhode Island, Maryland and Texas.

On the other hand, they were somewhat exposed by an athletic Tennessee squad at home, in what has been Pitt's only loss on the season to date.

There have been many positive so far this season.  The most encouraging thing has been the Panthers work on the glass.

It's going to be very tough to out-rebound the Panthers this season.  Through 13 games, Pitt is out rebounding their opponents by nearly 17 boards a game.  The Panthers also lead the nation in offensive rebounding, pulling in an outrageous 17.4 offensive boards per contest.

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The most insane number about how well the Panthers are rebounding the basketball is that they are rebounding their own missed shot over 44 percent of the time.  That's controlling the glass. 

Naturally, those numbers will likely go down, but if they continue to make rebounding a priority, the Panthers will be a very tough team to beat in conference play.

Another positive has been the play of Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown.  While Ashton Gibbs is the focal point of the offense most nights, both Wanamaker and Brown have shown they can carry the team offensively for stretches.

While underrated throughout the nation, Wanamaker is about to become only the eight player in Panthers history to score 1,000 points while dishing out 400 assists.  Those are numbers that speak to a productive college career.

Looking at Pitt on paper, you can make the case that they have it all.  They have the playmaker in Wanamaker, a scorer in Ashton Gibbs, a horse on the boards in Gary McGhee, a great athlete in  Brown, a backup point guard in Travon Woodall and great depth, so Dixon can run 10 players in and out of any given game.

Offensively, it has showed.

The Panthers rank 11th in the nation in scoring at 82.2 ppg.  They also rank second in the nation in rebounding, first in the nation in assists and are shooting a respectable 49 percent from the floor, good for 20th in the country. 

Unlike Pitt teams of the past, this one is very capable on the offensive end of the floor.

Perhaps the biggest reason the Panthers appear to be a team destined for success is motivation. Last season saw Pitt have a great regular season, but an early exit from the Big East Tournament. Early exits from the Big East tournament are something the Panthers aren't accustomed to.  Almost that entire team is back to make sure that it doesn't happen in consecutive seasons.

To get there though, Dixon has some things to fix, most notably on the defensive end.  The trademark Panthers defense is still there, but it has some holes.

They are still capable of shutting down any team in the nation at anytime. For instance, they held American to only two points through a ten minute stretch Wednesday night.  That effort has to be there every night though in the Big East.

Defending the perimeter shot has always been a problem for the Panthers, but this season it could become a huge one.  Too often, Pitt hasn't recognized shooters and has been too slow to rotate out. There are way too many quality shooters in conference play to make this a habit.

Quality athletes have given them fits as well. Great players can do that to most teams they face.  That's why they are great players.  The Panthers have always found ways to slow some of the games best down though, at least for one night.

They better bring it defensively Monday night for the Big East opener because so far no one has been able to slow down U Conn's Kemba Walker, who's throwing down a mere 27.2 points per game in the early going.

Slowing down Walker will be a must to get Pitt off to a good start in the Big East.

They're ready.


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