BREAKDOWN Is it Final Four or Bust for Jamie Dixon and Pittsburgh? Hardly, but the ninth-year coach is aware of an antsy fan base. "I know everyone wants us to win a national championship," says Dixon, who's advanced to three Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight during his tenure. "We want it just as badly."
Pittsburgh was a Final Four contender last season after winning the Big East title and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but a deflating 71-70 loss to Butler dashed its title hopes. It was Pittsburgh's second consecutive defeat on the first weekend of the tournament and also marked the second time in three years the Panthers failed to advance to the Final Four despite earning a No. 1 seed.
Despite losing talented starters Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee from a 28-6 team, Dixon returns one of the top shooters in the nation in Ashton Gibbs and enough depth for the Panthers to extend their 10-year streak of 20 overall victories and no fewer than 10 Big East wins.
Gibbs withdrew from the NBA Draft to improve on a skill set that features dead-eye shooting (he ranked third in the NCAA in three-point percentage at 49.0), unquestioned leadership skills and an unrivaled competitive drive. Gibbs famously went shot-for-shot with UConn's Kemba Walker in a Big East Tournament loss last season, going 10-of-13 from the field and 6-of-7 from the three-point range.
Gibbs and junior point guard Tray Woodall could form the best backcourt tandem in Dixon's nine years. Freshman John Johnson, who has been compared to former Villanova star Scottie Reynolds, could force Dixon to give him extended playing time, while redshirt freshmen Isaiah Epps and Cameron Wright provide quality depth.
Up front junior center Dante Taylor looks to live up to the hype that surrounded his arrival three years ago as a McDonald's All-American. A relentless offensive rebounder, Taylor can be a 12-point, eight-rebound player. Should he emerge, Taylor and freshman Khem Birch, the highest-rated Pittsburgh recruit in 25 years, could be a formidable 1-2 punch on the blocks.
At power forward, senior Nasir Robinson is a no-frills, undersized powerhouse who specializes in defense and rebounding, yet managed to score 21 points in a win over Syracuse. An x-factor offensively could be high-flying J.J. Moore, who received limited playing time as a freshman last season. Veteran Lamar Patterson is another quality small forward, while the intriguing Talib Zanna provides a two-way threat off the bench.
FINAL ANALYSIS Pittsburgh might be challenged to reach that elusive Final Four due to three new starters, but history reminds us that the Panthers will win. A lot. Consider: Dixon has won more games in his first eight years than any coach in history, averaging 27.0 per season. He also is the only active coach to lead his team to at least one victory in each of the past six NCAA tournaments.
NEWCOMERS Khem Birch (F, Fr.): Rated as the No. 2 recruit in the nation by one scouting service.