Pittsburgh has spent the much of the past decade as a fixture near the top of the Big East, making seven appearances in the conference championship game in the last eight years and winning the league title last season.
That’s also typically where their success has ended.
Despite seven straight trips to the NCAA tournament, the fifth-ranked Panthers haven’t sniffed a Final Four in that stretch, a trend they’ll look to change in a season that kicks off Friday against visiting Fairleigh Dickinson.
Ben Howland got Pitt’s program turned around in his four seasons as coach, leading the Panthers to two Big East tournament championship games and a pair of regional semifinal appearances in the NCAA tournament.
Since Howland left for UCLA, Jamie Dixon has kept Pitt (27-10) as one of the conference’s most consistent teams, but like his predecessor, he’s failed to get out of the regional semifinal round after reaching the field of 65.
Despite its run to the Big East tournament title last season, Pitt was ousted before the conclusion of the NCAA tournament’s first weekend, losing 65-54 to fifth-seeded Michigan State in the second round.
“It’s tough,” point guard Levance Fields said after the season-ending loss. “Obviously, we were on a roll. But all along, we knew it didn’t mean anything, because any time in this tournament if you don’t do the right things, you would be eliminated.”
Expectations are high once again in Pittsburgh, but a lot depends on the health of Fields, a senior who’s led the Panthers to a 52-12 record when he’s been in the starting lineup.
Fields missed 12 games last season because of a fractured left foot, although he returned in February and averaged 21.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the NCAA tournament. Now, he’s recovering from a second surgery, this one in August, and it’s unclear when he’ll be ready.
The Panthers were 19-4 when Fields started last season and 8-6 when he didn’t.
“We had hoped he would be back by now,” Dixon said. “It’s not where we thought it would be. He’s been injured for 11 months. You can’t sugarcoat it … he’s definitely not 100 percent.”
Freshman Ashton Gibbs is expected to start until Fields returns, and he’ll do so alongside junior college transfer Jermaine Dixon—the brother of former Maryland star Juan Dixon—in a suddenly inexperienced Pitt backcourt.
While Fields is the team’s floor leader, the Panthers get much of their scoring from a pair of star forwards. Senior Sam Young (18.1 points per game) was the third-leading scorer in the Big East last season, and he was also the league’s most improved player, increasing his average by 10.9 points.
“Sam Young is one of the best players in the country,” Fields said.
Sophomore DeJuan Blair, meanwhile, will return at power forward after starting 36 of 37 games as a freshman. Blair averaged 11.6 points and 9.1 rebounds and was named the Big East’s co-freshman of the year.
Reserve forward Gilbert Brown, who played a big role down the stretch last year, will also miss the start of the season with a stress fracture in his foot, but with Young and Blair—and eventually Fields—Dixon isn’t worried.
“We’re still putting things together,” he said. “But we have those three very good players, and I’ve been impressed with how they’ve embraced their roles.”
Fairleigh Dickinson (8-20) finished in a four-way tie for last place in the Northeast Conference last season, but was picked by conference coaches to finish fourth in the 11-team league in 2008-09.
The Knights are led by junior guard Sean Baptiste, who, like Young, made quite a leap last season in the scoring column. Baptiste scored just 4.6 ppg as a freshman, but averaged 18.5 points in 2007-08 to finish third in the conference.
His 13.9-point increase was the second-biggest improvement of any Division I player.
Baptiste will have to step up even more with the Knights losing their leading scorer, Manny Ubilla, who averaged 20.8 points.
Pitt has never faced Fairleigh Dickinson, but is 63-0 against current members of the NEC.