Pitt faces stiff test in opener against No. 9 Gonzaga

PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Panthers' long summer didn't afford Jamie Dixon's program the usual opportunity to prepare for the upcoming season. Five players underwent offseason surgeries and two more missed preseason activities due to nagging injuries.

On top of that, the Panthers now open their season 8,325 miles away from home in Okinawa, Japan, against No. 9 Gonzaga on Friday night. It's a long way to go to prove a point that Pitt is ready to put a disappointing 2014-15 behind them, but Sheldon Jeter and his teammates wouldn't have it any other way.

''A lot of the offseason we were talking about how last year we were mediocre and we want to be different his year,'' Jeter said. ''The best way I can think of to be different is, rather than playing those couple `warm-up' games, go right at one of the big dogs.''

Jeter is one of four returning starters for the Panthers, who went 19-15 and bowed out in the first round of the NIT, getting outplayed at home by George Washington. Jamel Artis and Michael Young return as the league's leading scoring tandem after combining to post 27 points per game in 2014-15.

''Right now I'm happy to play (Gonzaga),'' Artis said. ''We're the underdogs right now, they're ranked in the Top 10, we're not ranked at all and nobody has us projected, so I just want to go out there and play hard. I know it'll be a good game.''

Artis, Jeter and the rest of Pitt's forwards face a daunting task in the matchup with Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski who constitute one of the nation's top frontcourts. The trio combined for over 37 points and 19 rebounds per game last season and are expected to lead a Gonzaga team with Final Four aspirations.

''They're about as good as you can get in college basketball right now,'' Dixon said of Gonzaga's forwards, ''there's no question about it. They're experienced. You don't get big guys that are fifth-year seniors and fourth-year seniors that are that productive. That's unique and why they're so good, so talented and still around for the same time is rare.''

Pitt's head coach enters Friday's game 12-0 in season-openers and the Panthers haven't lost their first game since 1996. Those streaks face a massive test against the Bulldogs in the first-ever meeting between the two schools.

''They're a Top 10 team so I feel like this is the perfect matchup,'' Jeter said. ''We really want to prove to everybody who ranks us really low, I feel like this is the best way for us to prove that we belong in the top tier.''

While playing a highly-ranked team poses a challenge Pitt's willing to meet, Dixon is careful not to overstate its importance. After Friday, there's still four months to go before the NCAA tournament.

''This isn't going to determine our season,'' Dixon said. ''It'll be watched and talked about a lot so we understand that, but if we play great or we don't play great it's not going to have any impact on what we do in the next week or the next month.''

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AP College Basketball website: www.collegebasketball.ap.org

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