PITTSBURGH – The seasons change, the players change. What doesn't change with Pitt basketball are the expectations.
Win around 25 games. Finish high in the Big East Conference standings. Advance deep into the Big East tournament. Try to stretch March into April.
No Panthers team has made it past the NCAA round of eight. Every other criteria on Pitt's preseason check list has been accomplished multiple times during the last 10 years, and every one appears to be reachable this season.
Including that dash into April.
With four starters and seven of eight players back from a team that had a surprising 25-9 record last season and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, this could be the deepest of coach Jamie Dixon's eight teams. It might not be the best — no player appears to be as dominating as DeJuan Blair or Sam Young, both of whom left after the 2008-09 season — but there are outside shooters, playmakers, rebounders and defenders.
The Panthers haven't always had multiple players in all four categories even while running up records such as 31-5 in 2008-09 and 2003-05, 29-8 in 2006-07, 28-5 in 2002-03, 27-10 in 2007-08, 25-8 in 2005-06.
They do now.
"I've never been on a more athletic team," said Gary McGhee, the 6-foot-11 senior center who averaged nearly 7 points and 7 rebounds last season. "Everyone on this team can dunk, and you couldn't say that before with us."
The main challenge for a team that won 25 games last season — when a 20-win season was expected to be beyond reach — is to prove it can match or exceed predictions when a Top 10-caliber team is expected.
"People didn't think much about us last year, and we finished second in the Big East. So they know what we're capable of now, and that's why we're picked so high this year," forward Gilbert Brown said. "But that doesn't change anything. We have high expectations and want to show what we can do on the court."
They've already had more time on the court than most teams. While the Panthers officially opened preseason workouts Friday, they had 10 practice days this summer and played six games in Ireland. Dixon took advantage of the extra time to make a few lineup shifts and to indoctrinate 6-foot-6 freshman J.J. Moore and 6-4 freshman Cameron Wright into a system that demands a commitment to defense.
The 6-6 Brown (10.7 points), who shared time at power forward last season, shifts to power forward to replace the team's former top defender, Jermaine Dixon, the lone departed regular. Gary McGhee, a 6-11 senior, and 6-9 sophomore Dante Taylor will share time at the post, with 6-5 Nasir Robinson, 6-9 Talib Zanna and 6-7 J.J. Richardson at power forward. Brad Wanamaker, a 6-4 senior, will be the primary shooting guard, with leading returning scorer Ashton Gibbs (15.7 points) and 5-11 Travon Woodall at the point.
For much of last season, the 6-2 Gibbs showed he could handle the dual responsibility of running the offense while also being the primary outside shooter. He wore down a bit toward the end of the season, so his offseason emphasis was on getting stronger and finding more ways to score other than with his outside jumper.
"I worked mainly on my strength and conditioning," he said. "I wanted to get stronger to survive in the Big East, and it helped my quickness, too. My playmaking skills were something I worked on as well."
Moore, who could get considerable playing time at small forward, and Wright should provide immediate help. Last season, only Woodall (5.0 points per game) and Taylor (4.1 points, 3.7 rebounds) played much among the freshmen.
Another goal is to keep winning close games; Pitt lost only twice in games decided by four points or fewer, including a season-ending 71-68 loss to Xavier in the NCAA tournament. The Panthers beat Providence on a 40-foot shot by Gibbs and rallied from seven down with 45 seconds to play to beat West Virginia and five down with less than a minute left to beat Louisville.
Not only did Pitt gain experience from its Irish trip, it has the advantage of opening its season a few days earlier than most teams because it will take part in the 2K Sports Classic. Pitt will have played five games by Nov. 19, the same date it opened its season five years ago.
"We still have an attitude like we're the underdogs," Gibbs said. "That keeps us working hard. You need that to survive in the Big East."