Pitt center Gary McGhee didn't make his living last season by scoring points, and he didn't make it by grabbing rebounds. Rather, McGhee anchored Pitt's defense, and at Media Day on Thursday, head coach Jamie Dixon said that he expects even more from McGhee in his senior season this year.
"I've always touted how great a defensive player he was, especially last year," Dixon said. "I think he can be the best defensive player in the Big East; I really think he could be that. He's got to earn it, but he's done some very good things, and it won't be measured in shot blocks; it won't be measured by those things. It will be measured by position, help-defense, paint touches, those kinds of things.
"Again, that remains to be seen. I think he could be; make sure we have that down right. He's got to earn it."
McGhee didn't shy away from the challenge.
"That's my goal: to be the best defensive player in the league," he said on Thursday. "Last year I had a pretty good season defensively, so this year I'm just trying to improve on some things. Be a little quicker, block a few more shots; that can really help us. On the defensive end, if I control the paint and control the glass, that can help us be more successful."
Defense was McGhee's strength last season, but his 6.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game left something to be desired, particularly given the tradition of Pitt centers in the last ten years. Dixon said that McGhee has improved on the offensive end, but he's not setting the bar too high.
"He is getting better offensively. Do I think he's going to score like Aaron (Gray) or DeJuan (Blair) or Chris (Taft)? I don't think he's at that point right now, but he continues to work hard everyday. That's where he's at.
"I think he has improved, but his strength is going to be defensively. He's got to be the best defensive player for us. That will make him a valuable piece and will make us the best team we can be."
Like any basketball player, McGhee wants to get more points, but he also knows where he is most valuable to the Panthers this season.
"I definitely want to pick it up on the scoring end, and I feel like I'm a legit scorer now after how hard I worked in the offseason. I feel like, when I get the ball in the post, I can score at a very high rate. But my focus is definitely on rebounding and defense."
The key to Pitt's success
Dixon has always kept his focus on two areas that he feels need to be strengths of the Pitt basketball team if the Panthers are going to be successful. On Thursday, he singled out one specific area where the team needs to be more than good.
"We have to be a great rebounding team. Not a good one; I mean great, like dominating, leading the Big East. If you lead the Big East in rebounding, you're about the best in the country. That's something we've got to shoot for.
"That's a big statement, that's a bold statement, but I think we can be a great rebounding team. It won't be one guy; it will be different than how we've done it in the past. But we've got the ability to be a great rebounding team, both offensively and defensively."
The best part of Ireland
Outside of five-star forward Khem Birch's commitment to Pitt last month, the Panthers' mid-summer voyage to Ireland was the biggest storyline of the offseason. The team played six games against international competition Ireland in late July, and while the primary focus of the trip was on basketball - in addition to the six games, Pitt also held ten practices - Dixon said at Media Day on Thursday that he was pleased with everything his players got from the journey.
"I think it was just a great experience for them, first and foremost basketball-wise but I think culturally and just in growth and opening their eyes in a lot of ways," he said. "I was proud of how they went over there open-minded. They were open to going and seeing the museums, the Blarney Stone, the ambassador's house, and all the different things that we did. That was the thing I was concerned about: how they were going to be and how open they were going to be, and they were."
The trip was also an opportunity for the team to spend a significant amount of time together in a distant land, but Dixon downplayed the "bonding" element of the experience.
"It was a close group beforehand, so I don't know if the bonding thing is going to be a big change."
A lot of focus this season will be on true freshmen J.J. Moore, Cameron Wright, and Isaiah Epps. But the Panthers will have a pair of second-year players making their Pitt debuts this season in forwards Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna. Both players redshirted last year.
"They had some injuries last year and it slowed them down, but in the spring and summer, we really saw [improvement]," Dixon said. "I thought Lamar played well in the practices; not as well in Ireland, didn't shoot it as well, but played pretty well, especially in the practices. I think he's getting better and better. Talib had some good moments over there as well, and we saw that as the year went on.
"It was definitely a quality year for them, as far as redshirt years. They grew. The value in a redshirt year was going to be great for them, because Lamar being a younger kid and Talib, although he played a couple years of high school ball over here, there is some adjustment time. I think it was important for him in that regard."
There was no greater enigma on the 2009-10 Pitt basketball team than forward Gilbert Brown. Brown sat out the entire fall semester due to academic suspension, and when he returned he was consistent only in his inconsistency.
Now Brown is a redshirt senior, and Dixon has high hopes for the former four-star recruit.
"I've always said - and talked to him about - we need to have him out on the floor everyday, practice and games. It's hard to be the best you can be when you've missed numerous practices each year, and for him it's been really all four years that he's been here. So he's been pretty good. He's been healthy; he only missed on practice in July, and I was like, 'Well, here we go again,' but it was just one practice.
"I thought he played really well this summer. He shot the ball well, and he's really trying to do things right and lead and work hard. I really like his attitude."
Dixon said that the coaching staff has some specific goals for Brown.
"We've really challenged him on the defensive end. I think that's where he can really make a statement for us: defensively being a stopper, using his size and his length and his experience. This is his fifth year now. That's what we're really pushing.
"He has improved as he's gone on. He has gotten better each year, and I think this will be his best year."
The best five
Pitt's got an increasingly more impressive group of post players on the 2010-11 squad, with returning starters in McGhee and power forward Nasir Robinson, and a returning top reserve in Dante Taylor. Zanna also figures to be in the mix, as does J.J. Richardson, who worked as the third center last season.
McGhee and Robinson will hold onto their starting jobs, but the other three present versatility. Zanna will work as a power forward, but Taylor and Richardson could play either post position and bring different looks to the lineup.
Overall, Dixon is looking to find lineups that maximize the individual talents in the interest of creating the best possible combinations.
"The main thing is getting your best five players on the floor, and that's what we've always done. You've got to get your best five players. It doesn't matter how tall they are, it doesn't matter how small they are. That's always been our philosophy: get your best players on the floor. I think that has something to do with the numbers we've put up, as far as wins and losses, in a pretty good conference. Get your best players on the floor, and that's what we're going to do.
"I think it's up for debate as to who they are right now. I have a pretty good idea who a couple of them are, but I hope the best five is still evolving, still developing. I definitely don't want to shut any guys out of it. Everybody has an opportunity."
From Taylor to Moore
Expectations were high for Dante Taylor last season. A McDonald's All-American and the highest-ranked recruit Dixon had signed, Taylor was thought to be a player who could make a significant impact in his freshman year.
And while Taylor did serve as McGhee's primary backup at center, his stats didn't exactly reflect a productive season: 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds in 13.9 minutes per game.
"The highest-ranked recruit is always going to be the guy that's written about and talked about, and it just builds off that," Dixon said. "You guys have to write the new story and I understand that. There's nothing wrong with it. He handled it well and he had a great year.
"Is he the last guy that's going to not do as much as somebody wrote about him or talked about him in the preseason? I don't think he's going to be the last one. There's nothing wrong with that."
Dixon thinks one of his new players could face the same treatment in the 2010-11 season.
"J.J. Moore will probably be the guy who goes through that this year."
Making the grade
Dixon was pleased with the progress his players made in the offseason, and not just in basketball-related areas.
"We had a great year academically, just shade under a 3.0; 2.96 GPA," Dixon said. "They're really working hard on and off the floor and I'm proud of what they're doing."
Dixon added that junior guard Ashton Gibbs will be nominated for Academic All-American honors.
- The Blue-Gold scrimmage on October 22nd will be televised on Pitt Panthers Television on Comcast Network (channel 188 or 210). Bill Hillgrove will handle play-by-play duties, while Dixon will provide color commentary.
- Following the Blue Gold scrimmage, several players will participate in a dunk contest.
- The exhibition game against Northwood University on October 31st will tip at 2 p.m.