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Pitt optimistic about next season

| Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pitt lost an NCAA Tournament game Sunday but not much else.

The Panthers will return eight of their top nine players for the 2010-11 season, which served as a focusing point -- albeit only slightly -- in the post-game locker room after a 71-68 loss to Xavier in Milwaukee.

"We're a very motivated group," junior guard Brad Wanamaker said. "Losing (this game) just motivated us even more."

Pitt will bring back four starters, including top three scorers Ashton Gibbs, Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown, and the Panthers welcome two players who took redshirts and a promising three-man recruiting class.

Pitt (25-9) will almost certainly enter the 2010-11 season ranked in the top 20 in the nation and among the top four in the Big East.

"We've got a nice group coming back," coach Jamie Dixon said. "I'm looking forward to them getting back to work shortly."

On Monday afternoon, like he does after every season, Dixon met with the players to discuss future goals and objectives. The team will have its annual season-ending banquet in mid-April before embarking in a six-month offseason of open gyms, shootarounds, weightlifting and conditioning in a bid for a 10th consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.

"Next year, we're just going to try to bring our team back and get better," sophomore power forward Nasir Robinson said. "We will remember this loss to try to motivate us to get better as a team and individuals."

The only players out of eligibility are senior Jermaine Dixon, a two-year starter at shooting guard, and reserve guard Chase Adams (1.9 ppg).

Dixon averaged 10.6 points per game and typically covered the opposing team's top scorer. His career at Pitt ended on a low note, going 1 for 9 from the field for two points against Xavier.

"I wish those guys the best of luck," he said. "I'm definitely going to miss those guys. I had such a great relationship with them. Leaving makes it even tougher."

Pitt will have one of its deeper teams in coach Dixon's eight seasons.

Beside starters Wanamaker, Gibbs, Robinson and sophomore center Gary McGhee, Pitt returns Brown (10.7 ppg), one of the top sixth-man in the Big East; backup point guard Travon Woodall (5.0 ppg, 108 assists); and promising 6-foot-9 freshman center Dante Taylor, who played in all 34 games.

"It's just so hard to think about next year," Woodall said. "It's hard. ... Somebody's got to step up and be an emotional leader like Jermaine was."

The incoming freshman class features 6-2 point guard Isaiah Epps, 6-4 shooting guard Cameron Wright and 6-6 wing J.J. Moore. All three are considered four-star recruits by multiple recruiting services.

But if all three newcomers qualify academically as freshmen, Pitt will be one over the scholarship limit of 13. That means somebody on the current roster won't be back next year.

The depth will give coach Dixon many options as far as starters and playing time. But it comes with a lot of questions:

» Will Gibbs replace Jermaine Dixon at shooting guard, with Woodall starting at the point?

» Does Wanamaker, who played the three-guard this season, take over for Dixon at shooting guard•

» Will Brown displace Robinson as the starting power forward or return to small forward, the position he played as a sophomore?

» Can Taylor surpass McGhee, who was scoreless in the Xavier loss, as the team's starting center?

» Will the incoming freshmen make an immediate impact?

One thing is certain. After earning a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament after being picked in the bottom half of the Big East, the players are anticipating next season.

"To most people, we overachieved," Wanamaker said. "To us, we underachieved. ... We've got to get the young guys ready and make another run next year."

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