It wasn't that long ago that Dante Taylor walked onto Pitt's campus as one of the Panthers' most highly-touted recruits in a long time.
Taylor was a five-star recruit and one of the top 15 players in the country, destined for greatness and possibly a Pitt career shortened only by a talent-justified leap the NBA after a year or two of leading the Panthers to glory.
That was the plan. Instead, Taylor drifted over the last three seasons, coming off the bench for 15 minutes per game in his first two seasons and starting 20 games last year while playing less than 20 minutes. His season scoring averages never topped 5.8 points per game and his rebounding averages never got above 4.9.
In 104 games, Taylor has recorded two double-doubles and eight games with at least 10 rebounds. In 59 of his 104 career games, Taylor has grabbed fewer than five rebounds. In 91 of those games, he has been held to fewer than 10 points. He has never played more than 29 minutes, scored more than 17 points, or grabbed more than 12 rebounds in a game.
To be fair, Taylor has dealt with injuries throughout his Pitt career, starting with poor conditioning as a freshman and including back and knee problems. But it's to Taylor's credit that he doesn't look at those situations as justification for a career that has fallen well short of expectations.
"I don't want to use that as an excuse, because you're always going to have those knick-knacks when you're playing basketball. You just have to play through it, and that's what I try to do. I just always tried to play through it and get to the next game, because I knew that it wasn't going to be like that forever. Sooner or later it was going to get better."
By all accounts, Taylor finally is "better." He was a full participant in Pitt's offseason workouts, and he said at Media Day last week that he can feel the difference in himself. He is in better shape and feels like he is as well-prepared for the season as he has ever been.
That's a good thing for Taylor, because he's got some competition at the center position. Pitt added freshman Steven Adams to the roster this season, and now the former five-star recruit will have to fend off a more recent five-star recruit for playing time. Of course, Taylor faced that last year, too, when five-star center recruit Khem Birch joined Pitt, albeit for a short period of time before leaving the team.
Given the experience, though, Taylor thinks he knows how to handle this year's situation.
"It was the same question last year with Khem, as far as a guy coming in at my position," he said. "I'm not worried about a guy coming at my position or me starting or not. I'm just going to do whatever my coach wants me to do. If he wants me to start, I'm going to start; if he wants me to come off the bench, I'm going to come off the bench.
"I've never been a guy who was focused on starting or anything like that, because I know when I get in the game, I'm going to do whatever I need to do, regardless of whether I'm starting or not. It's not going to change how I play."
Adams said last week that Taylor hasn't been an unwelcoming upperclassman. Instead, the senior from Greenburgh, N.Y., has been doing what he can to help the freshman from New Zealand.
"He's just a good guy," Adams said. "He comes up to me and tells me what to do. Even when we're angry at each other, as in I'll give him an elbow or he'll be in my back, he'll still make sure that I understand the plays and that I know where to run, that sort of stuff. Even when he's playing defense, he tells me where to screen if I'm doing it wrong. He's a good teammate."
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon will likely select Adams as the starting center, but Taylor will be an important piece of the Panthers' rotation. Pitt hasn't had a strong presence under the basket since Dejuan Blair was roaming the paint at the Petersen Events Center several years ago, and Dixon knows that has to change if Pitt will improve on the disappointing 2011-12 season.
"We really want to get the ball inside," Dixon said. "I think that's something that we really emphasized this summer and this fall, and he's a big part of that. So we have to get the ball inside and be able to play out of inside touches, whether scoring or kicking back out. We want to go inside-out, it's always been a strength of ours, and we need to develop the inside game early in the season and continue to grow with it."
For his part, Taylor has one goal in mind for the next six months.
"I just want to have a good senior season and end it off the right way. I want to contribute to the team in whatever I can do and be a good leader. I want to be able to help the younger guys when they come in and show them the right way. And get back to winning."
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