The Pitt Panthers have been slotted by most experts into the top 5 or 10 teams in the nation. Coach Jamie Dixon would likely agree, considering that his starting center, 7-foot, 270 pound, Aaron Gray is a candidate for both Big East and national Player of the Year honors.
Gray will be a force underneath, but the Panthers have to find a replacement for their graduated leader, guard Carl Krauser, who was a tough talker and fearless slasher on the court.
Krauser's production, 15 points per game, will be the job of Ronald Ramon and Levance Fields to pick up. Who will do the trash talking is another matter altogether.
Power forward Levon Kendall, a senior, like Gray, will provide scoring and rebounding help in the interior. Either Sam Young or Tyrell Biggs will start at the other forward position, as both received plenty of playing time last season.
Pitt finished the 2005-06 campaign at 25-6, and were ousted in the 2nd round of the tournament by Bradley, 72-66. The Panthers also lost to Syracuse in the Big East tournament finals last season.
Their schedule will include some tougher opponents early on, including a home game vs. Duquesne on December 6, and back-to-back road games at Wisconsin, Dec. 16 and Oklahoma State, on Dec. 21. Big East play gets underway Thursday, January 4 at Syracuse.
For more on Panthers' hoops see this Pitt News account.
7. Arizona Wildcats
Lute Olsen is familiar with the ups-and-downs of NCAA Tournament play, so he's not concerned about last season's 2nd round exit. The 20-13 Wildcats lost, 82-78, to Villanova, a team that was loaded with talent and eventually fell to champion Florida in the Minneapolis regional final.
The Arizona offense will rotate around Mustafa Shakur, Marcus Williams, Ivan Radenovic and Bret Brielmaier. Shakur, Williams and Radenovic all averaged double figures in scoring last season, and while Williams will be the do-it-all forward dominating the PAC-10, Radeovic will be sweeping the boards. He led the team with 6.3 per game last season.
Brielmaier has looked sensational in practice and the 6'6" forward will be called upon to pick up his scoring in the absence of Hassan Adams, who graduated and last season led the team with 17.5 ppg.
With Shakur playing point, the 2-guard spot could be a competition between Daniel Dillon, Jawann McClellan and JP Prince as they try to fill the void left by Adams. Freshman Chase Budinger will get plenty of minutes as well. Coach Olson is very high on him and he'll add speed on defense.
Arizona will be in the hunt for the PAC-10 title, with UCLA having lost Jordan Farmar to the NBA and Brandon Roy having graduated from Washington. Coach Olson believes the strength of his team will be on defense and in transition:
We will go as much up tempo as our opponents will allow us. Our goal is to score 70 percent or more from the break situation or what we call the early offense, where we’re getting into our half-court offense. We’re going to try to push the tempo based on what we do offensively and defensively. I think we’ll be more up tempo than what we’ve had here, at least that’s our goal.
A couple of key early games should offer an indication as to how good the Wildcats really are. They host Illinois on December 2nd and Memphis on December 20. Another big game is at Louisville, Dec. 5.
For coach Olson's assessment of the Wildcats, see his media day quotes.
In anticipation of key Big East matchups, none offer more intrigue than the pair of games between Georgetown and Pitt on January 13 (at Pitt) and February 24 (at Georgetown). The two powerhouses should be neck-and-neck for the Big East title, having finished with identical 10-6 marks in 2005-06.
The reason for the anticipatory hype is over the center confrontation between a pair of 7-footers, Pitt's Aaron Gray and the Hoyas' Roy Hibbert. At 7'2" Hibbert has a slight 2-inch height advantage and is probably the only center in the Big East who can handle Gray in the post.
Last season, Hibbert was sensational, hitting 59% from the field while hauling down a team-high 6.9 rebounds a game. His 11.6 ppg average was good for 2nd to teammate Jeff Green, the athletic 6'9" forward, who has the ability to take control of games.
After those two, the Hoyas lost their 3rd, 4th and 5th-high scorers from last season to graduation - Brandon Bowman, Ashanti Cook and Darrel Owens - but Jessie Sapp and Jonathan Wallace should take over the guard duties, leaving one forward position to the trio of Patrick Ewing, Jr., Sead Dizdarevic and Marc Egerson to sort out. That trio is listed at 6'10", 6'9" and 6'6", so whenever the Hoyas take the court, their front line - along with Hibbert and Green - will be huge.
Besides the conference games against Pitt, there's Syracuse, UConn, Marquette, Louisville and Villanova to contend with, plus, Georgetown has some juicy dates on their early schedule, especially a home game against Oregon on November 29 followed by a road trip to Duke on December 2.
More on the Hoyas at Fox Sports.