5 PITT Panthers

November 22, 2010

A little motherly advice has keyed a rapid rise to the top of the Big East

WHILE OTHER mothers stressed the importance of eating broccoli to their children, Jacqueline Gibbs focused on making free throws. "I didn't listen to her at first because she didn't play basketball," says Ashton Gibbs, now the Panthers star point guard. But her message nevertheless sunk in. Last season the junior shot 88.4% from the free throw line (15th best in the nation).

And Jacqueline continues to provide motherly encouragement. Before each game Gibbs's phone lights up with a last-minute text message, usually a motivational Bible verse. A favorite, from Proverbs 23:7, reads, "As a man thinketh, so is he," or as Ashton interprets it, "If you believe in your heart that you're the best, you will be."

The Panthers follow a similar line of thinking. This time last year Pitt was ranked ninth out of 16 in the Big East Conference coaches' poll. The consensus was that the team was young and the season would be spent rebuilding. But coach Jamie Dixon's squad was one of the biggest surprises of 2009--10, winning 25 games.

This season, with four starters back, the Panthers are ranked atop the Big East poll. "I told [the team], our commitment, our work ethic can't change," says Dixon.

The Panthers are taking that statement to heart. Says 250-pound senior center Gary McGhee of the high expectations, "It's good pressure. We look forward to proving everybody right this year." Dixon says he expects the burly McGhee—seventh in the league in blocks last season (1.74 per game)—to be the best defensive center in the conference.

But Gibbs is the face of what is now the best team in one of the country's most competitive conferences. "We need to go into every game with an underdog mentality, like we have to prove something," the point guard says. If Gibbs & Co. can stay hungry, the Panthers could be frightening.

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE

Coach Jamie Dixon (5th season)

2009--10 record 25--9

Big East 13--5 (T-2nd)

NCAA tournament Second round

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POS. PLAYER HEIGHT CLASS KEY STATS
PG Ashton Gibbs 6'2" Jr. 15.7 ppg 1.8 apg
SG Brad Wanamaker 6'4" Sr. 12.3 ppg 4.7 apg
SF Gilbert Brown 6'6" Sr. 10.7 ppg 3.2 rpg
PF Nasir Robinson 6'5" Jr. 6.6 ppg 5.6 rpg
C Gary McGhee 6'11" Sr. 6.9 ppg 6.8 rpg
KEY RESERVE
G Travon Woodall 5'11" Soph. 5.0 ppg 3.2 apg

Returning starter

SCHEDULE

Nov. 8 Rhode Island

Nov. 10 Illinois-Chicago

Nov. 13 North Florida

Nov. 18 Maryland*

Nov. 19 Texas or Illinois*

Nov. 23 Robert Morris

Nov. 27 Penn

Dec. 1 Duquesne

Dec. 4 Rider

Dec. 8 Delaware State

Dec. 11 Tennessee

Dec. 18 Md. Eastern Shore

Dec. 22 American

Dec. 27 Connecticut

Jan. 4 at Providence

Jan. 8 Marquette

Jan. 12 at Georgetown

Jan. 15 Seton Hall

Jan. 17 Syracuse

Jan. 22 at DePaul

Jan. 24 Notre Dame

Jan. 29 at Rutgers

Feb. 5 Cincinnati

Feb. 7 at West Virginia

Feb. 12 at Villanova

Feb. 16 South Florida

Feb. 19 at St. John's

Feb. 24 West Virginia

Feb. 27 at Louisville

March 2 at South Florida

March 5 Villanova

*2K Sports Classic/Coaches vs. Cancer in New York City

KEY GAME

The Panthers split with the Mountaineers last season, losing 70--51 in Morgantown. West Virginia brings back only two starters from last year's Final Four team, including forward Kevin Jones, so coach Bob Huggins is in the midst of a rebuilding job. Pitt should have the edge come February.

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PHOTOFRED VUICHASHTON GIBBS The 6'2" junior with the smooth shooting stroke is the catalyst on a team seeking to validate high expectations.

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