Ashton Gibbs isn’t trying to be insensitive to his younger Pittsburgh teammates, but the senior guard really doesn’t care all that much what conference the Panthers play in next year.
Big East? ACC? To Gibbs, it doesn’t matter. He’ll be long gone.
“I want us to do well wherever we are,” Gibbs said. “But I can’t control it. All I know is my goal this year is to win the Big East. That’s what we do here.”
Few teams have done it better in the Big East than the 10th-ranked Panthers, who won the regular season title last winter and have been to the conference tournament championship game on seven occasions in the past decade.
Whether the Panthers (28-6) have to wait until 2014 to move to the ACC or are allowed to make the switch sooner, Gibbs knows the school’s legacy in the Big East is certain.
He’s just hoping to pen one more successful chapter.
Pitt, which opens the season Friday night against visiting Albany, certainly has the tools even with a young roster littered with 10 underclassmen. Coach Jamie Dixon gives credit to Gibbs, who flirted with going to the NBA last spring before opting to return for his senior season.
Gibbs heard his stock wasn’t quite high enough to make the leap, and to be honest he felt like there was some unfinished business.
For all the success the Panthers have from November through early March, something happens in the NCAA tournament. Typically, something bad.
Pitt is still searching for its first Final Four berth. Last year’s NCAA tournament run ended on the first weekend of March Madness when the top-seeded Panthers lost to Butler in the third round.
It took Gibbs months to get over it, and to be honest, he’s still not quite sure he’s moved on.
“You think about what happened, how we let things get away from us, how we got away from the things that have made us so successful,” Gibbs said.
The disciplined play that has been the hallmark of Dixon’s tenure was replaced by a staggering gaffe by forward Nasir Robinson, who fouled Butler’s Matt Howard 80 feet from the basket with less than a second left.
Robinson prefers to leave the mistake in the past.
“I’ve still got time and another chance,” said Robinson, who had surgery Oct. 14 to repair a torn right meniscus but returned for Monday’s 76-67 exhibition win over Kentucky Wesleyan and had six points and four rebounds.
The Panthers will finally try to break through the way they always have, with the kind of hard-nosed defense that’s made them one of the most intimidating programs in the country.
Yet center Gary McGhee and guards Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown are all gone. It will be up to youngsters like freshman forward Khem Birch to help provide the kind of toughness required to navigate the deepest - at least at the moment - conference in the country.
Though Gibbs is just 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, he’s taking it upon himself to take a leadership role at both ends of the floor.
It’s a pleasant surprise for Dixon, who challenged Gibbs - who averaged 16.8 points a game last season - to focus on his defense in the offseason.
“We were good (on defense) last year,” Dixon said. “Our numbers were good, one of the best in the country, but I think we can get better. We have experience in that area. So we were at a point, but we can reach for a higher point.”
Gibbs agrees. He’s been around the program long enough to know what’s expected from team leaders. Just in case he needed extra motivation, former Connecticut star Kemba Walker provided the blueprint of how far a team can go if it’s led the right way.
“I’m not saying I’m Kemba, he’s a great player,” Gibbs said. “But you see us in similar situations. He was on a young team and this is a young team. I know we’ve got talented guys and I know we can be great.”
It will be up to Gibbs to provide the spark. Though there’s little doubt he’ll be the player Dixon turns to when things get tight late, he’ll also attempt to become more of a facilitator for his teammates.
“For Ashton, from his junior to senior year, I think he’s going to take another step forward,” Dixon said. “He’s been a good defender, but we think he can play even better. We’ve asked a lot of him, and he can’t do it all. But he does a lot.”
Dixon is optimistic the rest of the Panthers can do the rest. There are high expectations of Birch, just the sixth McDonald’s All-American to sign with Pitt. Yet freshmen rarely thrive under Dixon, in part because of the time it takes for a player to learn how to deal with the rigors of playing defense in the most rugged conference in the country.
However, the 6-foot-9 Canadian has impressed his teammates with his tenacity. The Panthers make sure to hit Birch and hit him hard whenever he takes it to the rim. Though he’s been knocked down several times, he keeps getting back up.
“They just tell me whenever I think I’m taking it hard enough, to just take it harder,” Birch said. “You’ve just got to push yourself. It’s the only way to get it done here.”
The Great Danes (16-16) were picked to finish fourth in the America East preseason coaches’ poll after going 9-7 - tied for third in the league - in 2010-11. Albany lost leading scorer Tim Ambrose (16.6 points per game), but returns four other starters, including the junior backcourt tandem of Logan Aronhalt (14.6 ppg) and Mike Black (12.3).
Pitt, looking for its 58th straight home victory over a non-conference opponent, won the only meeting 83-54 at the Petersen Events Center on Nov. 28, 2003.