No. 10: Pittsburgh Panthers

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Midnight Madness is Friday. So we’re kicking off our college basketball coverage with our men’s preseason Top 25. Look for five teams posted a day, all this week.

2010-11 record: 28-6 (15-3), 1st in Big East
Lost in NCAA tournament second round

Coach: Jamie Dixon, 216-60, 9th year

Last NCAA miss: 2001

2011-12 roster [click here]
2011-12 schedule [click here]
2010-11 team stats [click here]

The good: Ashton Gibbs withdrawing his name from the NBA draft was fantastic news for Dixon’s squad. He’s the Big East’s best shooter and an ideal player to make scoring easier for everyone else. You wanna slack off Gibbs to help on someone else? Yeah, didn’t think so. He can’t always beat guys off the dribble or create his own shot, but he’s getting there.

And he’s not the only guy the Panthers got.

Senior Nasir Robinson (a classic glue guy who hustles, rebounds and guards) and sophomores Travon Woodall and Dante Taylor have spent the last two seasons molding themselves into Pitt players. You know, like a guy who runs the offense without an attitude (Woodall) and a guy who attacks the boards (Taylor). Both are ready for increased roles. Same goes for sophomore rebounding fiend Talib Zanna and incoming freshman Khem Birch, perhaps the best recruit of Dixon’s tenure.

The bad: Wait until mid-January, maybe even February. Chances are, you’ll read about Pitt’s “lack of offense” ultimately limiting their NCAA tournament chances. That hasn’t been the case in years.

If there’s an issue with the Panthers – and there aren’t many —  it lies with the defense.

The last few seasons have marked a slight uptick in Pitt’s overall defensive efficiency after a lull in 2007-08. But there isn’t much to fret about. Sure, they don’t force many turnovers, but that’s because they’re forcing bad shots and scooping up the misses. They don’t foul needlessly, either.

But without big center Gary McGhee, the Panthers do lack an intimidating inside presence to block shots. Freshman Malcolm Gilbert could be that guy, but maybe Pitt doesn’t need it. Not that Taylor or Birch or small …

The unknown: Is Woodall ready to lead? Departed guard Brad Wanamaker was the soul and on-court coach of last year’s squad. It would likely fall to Gibbs and Robinson, but that’s not really their style. Woodall seems more likely.

(Though, Gibbs sounds ready to be that guy if this story is any indication. This is how you use one big loss as major motivation.)

The other interesting aspect is how the Panthers will be greeted at opposing arenas. Bolting the Big East for the ACC irritated the rest of the league to the nth degree. But the Panthers aren’t leaving for another few years. Games at West Virginia and Providence – not to mention UConn if the Huskies stay put – won’t be pleasant.

Counting down the preseason Top 25

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