PITTSBURGH (AP) -The potential NBA first-round pick, one of the nation's most improved players last season, did something many proven athletes don't by returning for his senior season.
The point guard whose value was evident during an extended in-season layoff is back, too. So is the XXL-sized sophomore inside player whose most impressive first-season accomplishment might have been leading the team in steals.
So why will Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon rely so heavily on new players when the No. 5 Panthers open the season Friday against Fairleigh Dickinson?
The same reason why their 2007-08 season was constantly disrupted even as the Panthers won 27 games. Because of the ever-present threat of injuries.
Eleven months ago, Pitt lost small forward Mike Cook (knee) and point guard Levance Fields (broken foot) to injuries barely a week apart. Fields missed 12 games, while Cook did not return and was denied an extra year of eligibility this season.
The setbacks hardly ruined the Panthers' season - they recovered to win the Big East Conference tournament and reach the NCAA round of 16 - yet they lost 10 of their final 26 after starting 11-0.
Now, injuries are a worry again as Fields mends from a second foot fracture in August and the subsequent surgery. Forward Gilbert Brown (8.5 point-average last season) is recovering from a stress fracture in his left foot.
Fields might not be ready to start the season, although the games that count most don't begin until the Panthers open their challenging Big East schedule Dec. 31 against Rutgers. They play 12 non-conference games before then.
``We had hoped he would be back by now,'' Dixon said. ``It's not where we thought it would be. He's been injured for 11 months. There's no other way to put it. You can't sugarcoat it ... he's definitely not 100 percent.''
How important is Fields? The Panthers were 19-4 when he started and 8-6 when he didn't. During the NCAA tournament, he averaged 21 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists.
Sam Young, who increased his scoring average by more than 10 points to 18.1 as a junior, is the Panthers' best player. But Fields makes them go.
Fields, the acknowledged team leader, defers to the 6-foot-6 Young.
``Sam Young is one of the best players in the country,'' he said.
The biggest difference in the Panthers is they appear to be deeper and better positioned to handle injuries than they were last season.
Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall and junior college transfer Jermaine Dixon, played extended minutes during the two exhibition games. Dixon, the 6-foot-3 brother of former Maryland player Juan Dixon, had 11 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals as Pitt beat La Roche College 82-30 on Sunday.
``I'm extremely excited about our young guys,'' said coach Dixon, whose recruiting class includes 6-foot-5 freshman Nasir Robinson and 6-8 freshman Dwight Miller.
All four freshmen won state championships while in high school.
The Panthers will need that depth during Big East play. They may be No. 5 nationally, but they're ranked only third among conference schools; Connecticut is No. 2 and Louisville is No. 3.
``We're talking about a conference that could be the best in the history of college basketball, with nine or 10 teams getting into the NCAA tournament,'' Dixon said.
Pitt has made the tournament a school-record seven consecutive seasons, despite not regularly recruiting Top 50 players. The Panthers prefer players who fit a system built around defense, rebounding and taking high-percentage shots.
Young and the physical DeJuan Blair, a 6-7, 265-pound sophomore with the wingspan of a 7-footer, fit that system perfectly and will carry Pitt until Fields (11.6 points, 9.1 rebounds) and Brown are healthy.
``We've got seven players who weren't even in uniform for us last year,'' Dixon said. ``But we have those three very good players (Young, Fields and Blair), and I've been impressed with how they've embraced their roles.''
Young, for example, is making the switch from power forward to small forward partly to increase his 3-point opportunities and to give more playing time to 6-8 Tyrell Biggs. Young shot a team-high 38.3 percent from 3-point range last season.
``We're still putting things together,'' Dixon said.

NCAAB Top Stories

Thumbnail Wisconsin vs. Xavier Pick Will No. 15 Xavier be able to go on the road and pick up a small upset when the Musketeers take on Wisconsin 8:30PM...
Thumbnail Creighton vs. Northwestern Pick Will No. 20 Northwestern overcome a tough challenge at home when the Wildcats host ...
Thumbnail Indiana vs. Seton Hall Picks Can Indiana go on the road and pose a challenge to No. 22 Seton Hall when the two teams meet up tonight at 6:30PM...
Thumbnail Kentucky vs. Kansas Pick Tuesday’s college basketball slate closes out with another top-10 matchup when No. 4 Kansas faces No. 7 Kentucky at 9:30PM ET.
Thumbnail Purdue vs. Marquette Pick Can No. 19 Purdue go on the road and cover in the tough challenge of facing Marquette...

NCAAB Headlines

NCAAB Team Pages