After being named the Big East’s Most Improved Player last season, Ashton Gibbs earned a spot on the conference’s preseason first team. Right now, he has some competition as the top player in Pittsburgh’s backcourt.
Brad Wanamaker has been just as good as Gibbs during the fifth-ranked Panthers’ two wins, and the guard tandem should feast on overmatched North Florida on Saturday as Pitt seeks its 50th consecutive non-conference home victory.
Gibbs was an obvious choice as the most improved player in 2009-10, jumping from 4.3 points per game as a freshman to a team-high 15.7. Wanamaker’s average, meanwhile, went from 5.8 as a sophomore to 12.3, and the guards look like they’ve taken another step two games into this season.
Gibbs followed his 22-point effort in Monday’s 83-75 win over Rhode Island with 24 in a 97-54 victory over Illinois-Chicago on Wednesday, while Wanamaker has been the best all-around player for the Panthers. He had 24 points and eight assists in the opener, then had 17 points, nine assists and six rebounds in 25 minutes against UIC.
“I really like our perimeter, it’s a strength of ours,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “They’re getting other guys shots and making shots, and that’s a good combination. The numbers don’t lie.”
Gibbs tied for fourth in the Big East in 3-pointers made last season at 78, and although it’s early, he’s well on his way to topping that. He’s hit seven largely thanks to the dribble penetration of Wanamaker, who last season was one of 15 players nationally to average at least 12.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
“I’m more of a driver and a playmaker and Ashton’s a spot-up shooter, but he’s been creating his own shots so it makes him more dangerous,” Wanamaker said. “When you have two players constantly attacking you, it puts people on their heels.”
Seniors Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee have helped the Panthers outrebound their first two opponents by an average of 16.5, and they certainly shouldn’t have trouble edging North Florida on the boards in the teams’ first meeting. The Ospreys were tied for 307th nationally in rebounding differential last season at minus-4.4 when they went 13-18.
All five starters are back for the team coached by Pittsburgh native Matthew Driscoll, who is looking for improvement from the Ospreys in their second year as a full-fledged Division I member.
Having a familiar roster may not be the best thing for a North Florida team that averaged 59.0 points - 338th in Division I. No player scored more than 9.0 points per game for the Ospreys, who were picked to finish seventh in the 11-team Atlantic Sun.
“Preseason rankings whether you are last or first really don’t mean a whole lot in October,” Driscoll said. “They create a buzz that begins the conversations, which is great for our league, but reality is March.”
North Florida lost its four previous games against ranked opponents by an average of 39.8 points. Pitt has won by an average of 21.7 points during its non-conference home streak.