Pitt men eye future with new recruits

| Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pitt recruit Lamar Patterson watched the Panthers' heartbreaking Elite Eight loss to Villanova surrounded by rowdy Wildcats fans in South Jersey.

Patterson, a senior at St. Benedict's Prep and part of Pitt's heralded Class of 2009, stood his ground, as his teammates and coaches pulled for Villanova and former St. Ben's star Corey Stokes.

"I was the only one rooting for Pitt," he said. "Everyone else was rooting for Villanova. It was just me."

Soon, Patterson will have some company.

The 6-foot-5 wing and the rest of the incoming class will be counted upon, as Pitt tries to replace as much as four-fifths of its starting lineup from a 31-5 team.

Power forward Dante Taylor, the centerpiece of Pitt's incoming class, will play in the McDonald's All-America game Wednesday night on ESPN. Forwards Talib Zanna and J.J. Richardson also are part of a class rated fourth-best in the Big East and 21st-best in the nation by Scout.com.

They will be needed.

The Panthers lose third-team All-America Sam Young, All-Big East point guard Levance Fields, along with power forward Tyrell Biggs. They also may lose consensus first-team All-America DeJuan Blair, if the sophomore center declares for the NBA Draft.

That would leave Pitt with one returning starter, shooting guard Jermaine Dixon; an all-new frontline; and for only the fourth time since 1999, a new starter at point guard.

"It's some big shoes to fill," said Richardson, a 6-7 forward from Houston. "But I think we can get the job done and get Pittsburgh where we went this year, as long as we put in the work and everyone plays together."

Following Pitt's 78-76 loss to Villanova on Saturday in the NCAA East Regional final, Blair said he would discuss the issues with his family and make a decision "in a couple of weeks."

The deadline for NBA early entry is April 26, and the last date to withdrawal is June 15.

If Blair does turn pro — he's a projected lottery pick — that will leave Pitt one extra scholarship for the 2009-2010 season. One likely target is 6-10, 250-pound Kyryl Natyazhko, a forward at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The Ukrainian visited Pitt earlier this month and also is considering Xavier, Arizona State and Ohio.

Travon Woodall, who redshirted this year, is the leading candidate to replace Fields. Taylor, the first McDonald's All-America to pick Pitt since 1987, should start right away.

Clark Francis, editor of Hoopscooponline.com , said Pitt's incoming class should help ease the losses.

"I love Lamar Patterson, and I think Zanna is terrific, and Dante Taylor is ready to walk in and be one of the better big guys in the Big East," he said. "They should be fine up front."

Top returners are sophomore Gilbert Brown, in line to replace Young at small forward; sophomore shooting guard Brad Wanamaker and freshmen Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson, along with two freshmen who redshirted, Woodall and power forward Dwight Miller.

While only one of Pitt's four freshmen (Gibbs) made any impact this season, that will change with the class of 2009.

"We just want to work as hard as possible," Patterson said, "and make sure we battle and maintain our Big East status."

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