Last year was supposed to be a bit of a rebuilding year for the Panthers, having lost DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and LaVance Fields from their Elite Eight (and oh so close to Final Four) squad. But Ashton Gibbs had a breakout season as a sophomore, Brad Wannamaker stepped up as a team leader and Pitt got solid contributions from veterans Gilbert Brown (after his academic suspension in the first semester) and the since-graduated Jermaine Dixon. Along the way, Jamie Dixon’s club made a habit out of winning tight Big East games and wound up posting a 25-9 record. With four returning starters and with Dixon the only major loss from last season’s squad, there is plenty of hope around the program that the best this group has to offer is still to be seen.

Gibbs and Wannamker join senior center Gary McGhee and junior forward Nasir Robinson as the four returning starters, but Brown also returns for his senior year, and while he did not start a single game last season, he is a veteran who has already played in 95 games as a Panther and even started a few games as a sophomore before falling back into the role of a key spark off the bench. Brown is an athletic wing that is good on both ends of the court, and would fit right in as the fifth starter for the Panthers. However, regardless of whether he starts or continues in his role as a sixth man, he figures to finish most close games for Dixon.

While McGhee and Robinson are the incumbents along the frontline, each will have to work to keep their jobs, with former McDonald’s All-American Dante Taylor perhaps poised for a breakout sophomore season of his own. Taylor was already the best offensive rebounder on the team as a freshman, and with a year of experience under his belt and his athleticism around the rim, he could take over for the undersized Robinson at the four spot. Robinson, however, won’t let that happen without a fight, given that his scrappy style is emblematic of the Pitt program since the Ben Howland-sparked resurgence began. McGee, for that matter, is also a big man who makes his presence felt mainly through hard work and hustle. A less-than-amazing athletic threat, McGhee is not a huge factor on the offensive end, but can get on the glass and body up against physical Big East post players. Sophomore J.J. Richardson and redshirt freshman Talib Zanna will be counted on to provide depth up front, and both have a lot to prove, but given the history of Pitt post players developing over their career into consistent contributors, an eye should be kept on both undersized players for improvement. Both players have been double-double threats in Pitt’s summer league games thus far.

In the backcourt, things are more or less settled. Gibbs and Wannamaker will be the starters with sophomore point guard Travon Woodall the first guard off the pine and something close to a third starter back there. While Gibbs is the flashiest of the bunch, and will likely be the team’s leading scorer again this season, Woodall is a rising star whose lead –guard abilities mesh well with Gibbs’ ability to play off the ball and make use of his pure shooting skills. Wannamaker, on the other hand, is quiet and solid. While not a great shooter nor a true point, he has developed into an excellent offensive player, scoring, setting up teammates and generally running the offense smoothly, all while being a particularly annoying defender on the other end of the court. With this trio, the Pitt backcourt is in solid hands. As a bonus, reinforcements arrive in the form of two members of the three members of this year’s recruiting class: 6-4 shooting guard Cameron Wright and 6-2 point Isaiah Epps. Epps is a quick little lefty who is a terrific ballhandler and passer with great court vision and the ability to either penetrate or pull-up for the jumper. Wright is a slashing guard whose shooting ability can be favorably described as streaky. Neither guy needs to be counted on this season, but it is likely Dixon will find some minutes for these guys somewhere in order to get a feel for their potential.

Redshirt freshman Lamar Patterson and incoming freshman J.J. Moore give the Panthers additional depth at the three, and both should fight it out for minutes in relief of Brown. Patterson played a handful of games for Pitt last season before severely spraining his ankle and receiving a medical redshirt. He is a versatile athlete whose gifts could help him force his way into Dixon’s rotation. Moore, meanwhile, is the most highly regarded of this year’s three-man recruiting class, another versatile athlete who is comfortable both stroking it from three and slashing to the lane. Given the depth of this Panther squad, it is not out of the question that Moore will also don a redshirt for his first year.

With such a loaded roster, the fact that the squad will be making use of an NCAA rule that allows programs to take one foreign trip every four years with a 12-day six-game visit to Ireland this summer should just provide the team to continue to form into a cohesive unit, before fall practice is even on the horizon. The freshmen will be eligible to participate in the trip provided that the complete at least one three-unit course in the summer session, and at this point it looks like Moore and Wright will be able to take advantage of the opportunity, while Epps will not. Ideally Coach Dixon will be able to get a glimpse at how to work all these talented players into a cohesive rotation, while exploiting the extra practice time that he’ll get to spend with his team. Already the favorite in the Big East, this little bit of team-building could make the difference between a very good team and a great team.

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