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Pitt freshmen have varying degrees of success on court

| Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011

On the same day Pitt announced next year's top-10 recruiting class, its current freshmen got their first taste of Division I basketball.

The Panthers' four-man freshman class - Khem Birch, John Johnson, Malcolm Gilbert and Durand Johnson - had varied debuts in an 89-56 season-opening victory over Albany on Friday.

Birch, a 6-foot-9 five-star power forward, and Johnson, the 6-1 point guard from Philadelphia, saw quality time, while center Malcolm Gilbert (finger) and wing Durand Johnson (coach's decision) didn't play.

"I'm excited about those guys," coach Jamie Dixon said. "(Birch) learned some things as the game went on. He picks up things quickly. It's a huge transition from high school to our level. ... and I think he did some really good things."

The quartet of newcomers will get another chance to make an early impression when Pitt (1-0) hosts Rider (0-1) at 6 p.m. today at Petersen Events Center.

Rider, an MAAC school, has beaten Southern Cal, Mississippi State, Rutgers, Penn State and St. Joseph's over the past five seasons, but fell at Robert Morris, 83-57, on Friday as part of its two-game Western Pennsylvania road swing.

John Johnson had a flashy debut. He recorded a steal and a 3-pointer in his first 48 seconds on the floor midway through the first half. He finished with eight points, including 2 for 2 from 3-point range, in 13 minutes. Since 2005-06, only four other Panthers have scored more points in their first game (DeJuan Blair 20, Levance Fields 12, Dante Taylor 13, J.J. Moore 9)

"I was kind of nervous," John Johnson said, "but once you make your first shot, all of the nerves go away, especially when you've got guys like (Travon Woodall and Ashton Gibbs). They give you confidence on the court."

Birch, one of the most coveted recruits in program history, had two points - both free throws - and three rebounds in 17 minutes, the most of any non-starter.

"They played well," Gibbs said. "They played hard and when you play hard, the game is going to come to you. I expect big things from them. They work hard and they listen. The sky is the limit for them."

There is more on the way. Next year's two-man Class of '12, five-star New Zealand big man Steven Adams and DeMatha (Md.) point guard James Robinson, is rated No. 8 in the nation by ESPNU.

Dixon said Gilbert "could have probably gone" after suffering a fractured finger in Thursday's practice, but Pitt rested 6-foot-11 shot-blocker.

Durand Johnson, playing the same crowded small forward position as sophomores Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore, is a likely redshirt candidate.

"We're still figuring out what we're going to do with Durand," Dixon said. "He's going to be a very good player for us. We're just trying to see what we do here as we move forward. I talked to him about it."

Additional Information:

Today's game

Rider (0-1)

at 10-Pitt (1-0)

6 p.m. today, Petersen Events Center

ESPN3/The Fan (93.7)

Series: Pitt leads, 1-0

Notable: Pitt defeated Rider, 87-68, last season behind Brad Wanamaker's 11-assist, no-turnover effort.

Players to watch

Rider: Anthony Myles, So., G • The 6-foot-5 shooting guard scored a career-high 20 points in Friday's 83-57 loss at Robert Morris.

Pitt: Ashton Gibbs, Sr., G • The Wooden Award candidate scored 21 points and tied his career high with seven assists in Pitt's 89-56 win over Albany.

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