The 10th-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers begin a season of high expectations tonight as they entertain the Albany Great Danes.
The Great Danes split their 32 games last season and posted a 9-7 mark against America East Conference competition. They had a nine-win improvement from 2009-10 and won more AEC games than the previous two seasons combined, so it is understandable that there is a buzz around the program. Will Brown, one of 10 head coaches to have won multiple America East championships, is the longest tenured mentor in the league.
Under head coach Jamie Dixon, the Panthers made it to the NCAA Tournament once again last season, but the squad fell short of its goals by failing to win either the Big East Tournament title or earning a berth in the Sweet 16. Fortunately, there is a significant amount of talent back in place, enough for Dixon to challenge for the crown in college basketball's elite league.
Pitt won its only previous meeting with Albany back in 2003.
Albany figures to continue its rise because of the return of seven letterwinners and four starters, and there is no other squad in the nine-team America East Conference to bring back multiple all-league performers. Guards Logan Aronhalt (14.6 ppg) and Mike Black (12.3 ppg), both third-team choices a year ago, are the AEC's leading returning scoring duo after averaging a combined 26.9 ppg last season. Blake Metcalf doesn't provide much in the way of offensive production, but the center has been a captain the last two years and is still just a junior, speaking volumes about his leadership.
Named the Preseason Big East Player of the Year, Pitt's Ashton Gibbs led the team in scoring (16.8 ppg) and shot an incredible 49 percent from behind the three-point line a year ago. There are few players out there like Gibbs, who has all of the tools to dominate a game offensively. Also adding senior leadership for the Panthers in 2011-12 is Nasir Robinson, who was responsible for 9.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per contest last season, and he is someone who knows full well that he belongs in the paint on offense and should never be wandering out on the perimeter for any reason. Robinson, who attempted just two three-point field goals a year ago, connected on 54.8 percent of his field goal attempts, slightly better than his woeful 52.6 percent shooting at the charity stripe. Even though he was just a freshman and was coming off the bench in almost every game, Travon Woodall demonstrated that he was destined for more responsibility as he delivered 6.4 ppg and was second on the unit with 117 assists, with a mere 50 turnovers which means few players in the league control the ball as well as he does.