PITTSBURGH (AP) -Here's what losing DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields means: Pittsburgh, one of the eight best teams in the country last season, was picked ninth in the Big East Conference coaches preseason poll.
Nearly 70 percent of the Panthers' scoring and rebounding are gone from last season. Only one starter returns, and he's spent most of the preseason with a walking boot on his broken foot. The leading scorer in the first preseason game was a freshman.
Not surprisingly, this is supposed to be the season the Panthers return to the Big East pack, no longer an elite team like those that averaged 29 victories over the last three seasons.
Since transforming itself from a back-of-the-pack team into a Top 25 fixture in 2001, Pitt hasn't undergone such a major overhaul. None of the Panthers' top six players from last season will be playing when the season starts Nov. 13 against Wofford, and reaching the NCAA tournament for a ninth consecutive season will be a significant challenge.
d, and he's pushing it right back at his players. The stars may be gone, but Dixon is certain this team has depth, developing players and a mindset for playing defense.
``This team can be as good as any team we've had,'' Dixon said. ``I know what everyone's writing, because you look at it on paper. But we play games on the court. Where we are now isn't where we're going to be. That is our belief and our driving motivation.''
Dixon knows how to win. He has a 163-45 record at Pitt, the most victories for any NCAA Division I coach after six seasons. His .698 winning percentage in Big East games is better than that of John Thompson, Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim, although those coaches have won NCAA championships and Dixon has not.
Dixon also knows it's not realistic for Pitt to equal its 31-5 record from last season. What he believes is his current group can be as good as the Blair-Young-Fields unit that went a school-record 112-31 over four seasons.
Of course, that may depend on how long 6-foot-9 freshman Dante Taylor stays in school. Blair played only two college seasons before leaving for the NBA, and Taylor was more nationally recognized as a high school player than Blair.
y to be the intimidating rebounder and shot-altering player Blair was.
``He's the real deal,'' guard Chase Adams said of Taylor, who led Pitt with 27 points against Division II Slippery Rock on Nov. 1.
Nasir Robinson (1.2 points), a 6-5 sophomore; 6-10 junior Gary McGhee (1.5 rebounds), 6-8 redshirt freshman Dwight Miller and 6-5 freshman Lamar Patterson also will get minutes up front, although there doesn't appear to be a Young-like scorer/rebounder in the bunch.
The 5-10 Adams was the Summit League defensive player of the year last season and provides Pitt with a 3-point threat to go with 6-2 sophomore Ashton Gibbs and 6-3 senior Jermaine Dixon. Adams was allowed to transfer without sitting out a season because Centenary, his former school, is dropping to Division III.
Adams deepens what Dixon believes could become his best backcourt. Adams averaged 14.4 points last season against Centenary's best opponents: Mississippi State, LSU, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Missouri.
Jermaine Dixon, Pitt's best defender last season, needed surgery after breaking his right foot twice during the offseason but is expected to be playing later this month. Gilbert Brown, a 6-6 junior who was Pitt's sixth man last season, is academically ineligible until Dec. 20.
Gibbs, whose 43.9 percentage from 3-point range was the best in the Big East, benefited from playing on the Jamie Dixon-coached United States team that won the world 19-and-under championship last summer.
``It was big on a confidence level, if I can play against some of the best players in the international level, all over the world, I can play against some of the best players in the country,'' Gibbs said.
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