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Young Panthers eager to take bigger roles

| Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009

There is a chance that sometime in the past century, Pitt tipped off a season with a younger team than this year's.

Just don't bet on it.

The Panthers' starting lineup against Wofford (S.C.) on Friday night at Petersen Events Center will include only one player who has started an NCAA men's basketball game — junior center Gary McGhee, who can count on one finger his previous starts.

"I know the easy thing is to sit here, and most coaches would be stressing the youth," coach Jamie Dixon said. "You're as young as you play. We have no excuses."

The other four starters — redshirt freshman Travon Woodall, sophomores Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson, and junior Brad Wanamaker — have never been on the floor for the opening tip of an NCAA game.

Wanamaker came off the bench for every game of Pitt's 31-5 Elite Eight team last season. He said the new-look Panthers will get a chance to assume more ownership of the eight-time NCAA Tournament qualifier in the absence of Sam Young, DeJuan Blair and Levance Fields.

"We all talk about how we've been waiting for this moment," Wanamaker said. "The moment's here."

The lone starting experience comes from McGhee, who filled in once last November when Blair was sidelined with a swollen knee.

By comparison, Pitt's opening-day starters last year (Young, Blair, Fields, Jermaine Dixon and Tyrell Biggs) had a combined 143 previous starts. The year before that, there were 155 starts. The year before, in 2006-07, there were 145 previous starts.

Pitt's most experienced Division I player, senior transfer Chase Adams, is coming off the bench. The point guard started 76 games at Centenary (La.) College.

Among Pitt's 11 healthy scholarship players this season, six are freshmen (true or redshirt), including five-star center Dante Taylor.

"Just because we don't have any returning starters out there for the first game," coach Dixon said, "that doesn't mean we can't play hard, we can't execute and we can't defend."

This all-new unit will remain the first five until Jermaine Dixon, who started all 36 games last year at shooting guard, returns from a broken foot. He is out of his walking boot and returned to shootarounds this week. But he could be out until the Nov. 23-24 tournament in Kansas City, or possibly later.

"We're not going to rush it," coach Dixon said. "There's no pain whatsoever. We just don't feel it's fully and completely healed."

Dixon, in his seventh season, typically loses two or three starters, but this is by far his biggest rebuilding project — and the reason the Panthers are picked in the bottom half of the Big East and an afterthought in every preseason top 25 poll.

The players remain optimistic.

"I think it's going to be a good season for us," said Gibbs, the team's 19-year-old starting shooting guard. "We've just got to keep playing hard and play defense. As long as we play our hardest, we'll be fine."

The sharp-shooting Gibbs played in 35 games last season as a true freshman, and also played this past summer for the Dixon-coached gold medal-winning USA Basketball Under-19 team in New Zealand.

"I don't think there's ever been a kid that says 'I'm young. I'm inexperienced, so I'm not good enough,' '' coach Dixon said. "They look at it a whole different way. It's not a crutch."

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