While questions still out-number answers for the Pitt men's basketball team heading into the 2009-10 season, at least one possible solution might have been arrived at this summer, and it happened more than 7,000 miles away from Pittsburgh.
The question: point guard, where Jamie Dixon is looking to replace three-year starter Levance Fields. The possible answer: sophomore Ashton Gibbs. And the proving ground: New Zealand, where Dixon and Gibbs just finished leading the USA Men's National Team to a gold medal in the Under-19 World Championships.
The American team, coached by Dixon, Southern Illinois head coach Chris Lowery, and Purdue head coach Matt Painter, put together a perfect 9-0 record through the tournament, culminating with an 88-80 win over Greece Sunday night. Gibbs scored 13 points in 22 minutes of play during the championship game, culminating a run that saw him start six of nine games and average 9.8 points and a team-high 22.4 minutes per game.
But the most crucial stats for the Panthers going forward were Gibbs' assist and turnover numbers: 20 assists and only six turnovers.
"Through all the things, that was probably the most important for us as a program," Dixon said after returning to Pittsburgh Wednesday night. "That Ashton was able to play."
Gibbs didn't just play a lot, though; he spent every minute of playing time running the show for Team USA.
"I was strictly playing point guard," Gibbs told PantherLair.com Wednesday. "My role was to knock down open shots and take what the defense gave me, but also to involve my teammates and distribute the ball.
"Coach Dixon stressed that he wanted me to play the point guard position, and I took advantage of it. I got my teammates the ball where they wanted it and I didn't want to turn the ball over. I think I did a successful job at that."
Gibbs wasn't the only one who thought he was successful in that role.
"Coach Painter and Coach Lowery did a lot of the substitutions, and they just wanted him in there at all times," Dixon said. "They really felt comfortable with him having the ball."
Lowery and Painter felt comfortable with Gibbs having the ball; in the coming season, it will be a question of whether or not Dixon feels comfortable with Gibbs having the ball.
"I think I can play the point guard, but at the end of the day it will still be up to Coach Dixon who will be the point guard, whether it's me or [redshirt freshman point guard Travon Woodall] or whoever. But I'm going to try my best and work my hardest to hone my point guard skills, and whenever I get my minutes, I want to contribute."
As a true freshman last season, Gibbs spent most of his playing time as a reserve point guard, backing up Fields while Woodall took a redshirt. Gibbs played in 35 games and led the Big East in three-point field goal percentage, knocking down 43.9% of his long-range shots and hitting at least from beyond in the arc in 19 games.
Now, with Fields and three other starters gone from Pitt's 2008-09 team that reached the Elite Eight, Gibbs and company will have to make up a lot of ground in order to be ready to face the Big East in the coming season. But he said on Wednesday that the experience of playing in the World Championships over the past two weeks has him ready for the conference schedule this winter.
"We played against some of the best players in the world, and that gave me a great boost of confidence for this year. I figure if I can play against the best in world then I can play against the best in this country and the best in the Big East.
"My whole life I've been an underdog and I've been on underdog teams; I've been in these situations before. Now we lost four starters and we're expecting to be underdogs. But at the end of the day the winning will be decided by whoever works the hardest, whoever plays the hardest, and whoever comes the most prepared."
Chris Peak can be contacted at email@example.com