Despite losing three starters, Jamie Dixon will have his Pittsburgh Panthers competing for a Big East Championship. That's just the way this team operates under him. Regardless of who returns or who is gone, Pittsburgh is going to be one of top teams in the conference.
The Panthers chances of repeating vastly improved with Ashton Gibbs' decision to come back for his senior year of college. In addition to being one of the most dangerous three-point shooters in the country, he will be counted on as the leader of this year's team. Gibbs will primarily play off the ball with Travon Woodall expected to step into the starting lineup and handle the point. Pittsburgh will miss Brad Wanamaker's versatility and toughness in the backcourt as they turn to a smaller duo of Woodall and Gibbs.
Cameron Wright and Isaiah Epps both redshirted last season but will likely step into reserve roles off the bench. Freshmen Durand Johnson and John Johnson will also compete for minutes on the wing. Dixon has never been afraid to redshirt a player and could elect to do so with one of the Johnson's since there won't be enough minutes to go around.
J.J. Moore and Lamar Patterson will replace Gilbert Brown's minutes at the three. Moore is similar to Brown in that he is long, athletic, and capable of shooting it from deep. Patterson brings a little more physicality to the wing while Durand Johnson could also see some playing time at the three.
Dixon loses a lot of size and strength in the middle with Gary McGhee graduating, but still has some big bodies inside. Dante Taylor doesn't possess the ideal height for a center but is a tank inside who loves his throw his body around. The addition of freshmen Khem Birch and Malcolm Gilbert gives the Panthers options behind Taylor as they perfectly Pittsburgh's style of play.
Birch has great length and athleticism, so should be an instant contributor as a shot blocker and rebounder though his offensive game is still very raw. Gilbert is also a rim protector on the defensive end and a little more physical than Birch but also is a work in progress as a scorer.
Nasir Robinson is recovering from a torn meniscus that could sideline him for the start of the season but will start in the frontcourt once he returns. At 6-foot-5, he is an undersized power forward but plays incredibly hard and is not afraid to mix it up down low. He can also play small forward if needed.
Talib Zanna offers more size up front and will start until Robinson gets to 100 percent. Zanna started 13 games last season so it will not be anything that will overwhelm him. He mainly makes his impact felt on the glass but also has a developing mid-range game.
The Panthers have a very weak non-conference schedule so we won't find out how good this team can be until Big East play rolls around. Their identity will once again be their toughness and hard-nosed play on the defensive end, which always seems to cause problems for their opponents, but hasn't gotten them over the hump and into the Final Four.
Player to Watch: Ashton Gibbs, G
There might not be a player in college basketball who comes off screens and can catch it and shoot it like Gibbs. He shot a scorching 49% from distance last season and might have to pick up his scoring load even more this season since Pittsburgh has some uncertainty as to who will score points this season.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/16 vs. Long Beach State
12/3 at Tennessee (Big East/SEC Challenge)
12/10 vs. Oklahoma State (at Madison Square Garden)