11/27/2008 1:33 PM ET
Pitt duo returning home to New Jersey
Gibbs, Woodall excited to perform in front of friends and family
By Adam Zagoria/SNY.tv
Ashton Gibbs played high-school ball at Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, N.J. (AP)

When Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall arrive at the Prudential Center in Newark for this weekend's Legends Classic, they will be greeted by a slew of family, friends and former teammates anxious to watch them compete at the collegiate level.

This is, after all, a Garden State homecoming for the freshmen duo at Pittsburgh.

"I'm excited," said Gibbs, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound shooting guard who starred at Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, N.J. "A lot of my family and friends are going to be there. Just to come back and play like 15 minutes away from my house is a special thing and I'm honored to do it."

The Pittsburgh roster features three players who played high school ball in New Jersey -- Gibbs, Woodall of St. Anthony in Jersey City and senior Tyrell Biggs of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey -- and a fourth, senior guard Levance Fields, who is a Brooklyn native.

The local connections to the No. 4 team in the nation don't end there, either. Brandin Knight, a Pitt assistant, also starred at Seton Hall Prep and went on to win Big East Player of the Year honors.

Lamar Patterson, a senior at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, will join the Panthers next year, and Pitt is also recruiting St. Anthony senior wing Dominic Cheek, a Top 10 shooting guard.

"Since I've been here [the last] 10 years, New Jersey is becoming better and better as far as players," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, whose team faces Texas Tech Friday and either Washington State or Mississippi State on Saturday.

"In the last couple of years, there's a large amount of quality players able to play in our conference [from New Jersey]. I think kids in that area generally want to play in the Big East."

Both Gibbs and Woodall won state championships last season, Gibbs under Bob Farrell and Woodall and Cheek leading under legendary coach Bob Hurley. The St. Anthony Friars posted an undefeated record, won the New Jersey Tournament of Champions title and captured a mythical national championship. St. Anthony and St. Benedict's finished 1-2 in most national prep polls.

"We want to get guys from winning programs and usually that means they've been coached and they've played in big games," Dixon said. "Once you're in Jersey, those four or five schools in New Jersey [along with St. Patrick of Elizabeth], they just seem to be great every year. [Those players have] played in big games. They've played against high-level talent and they've been coached.

"It doesn't take much to figure it out. Those are the best players. They've been coached, and they know the importance of winning."

Both Gibbs and Woodall could have gone to a variety of schools, but Pitt turned out to be the ideal choice. The Jersey players can be assured of returning home to the area over the next four years for games with Rutgers, Seton Hall and St. John's, as well as events like the Legends Classic. The Big East tournament is held every year at Madison Square Garden.

"It's not too far from home; it's in the Big East. And you get to go home at times," said Gibbs, who chose the Panthers over Georgetown, Seton Hall, Miami, USC and Virginia. "You play against Rutgers and Seton Hall so it's a good commute but at the same time you're away from home so you get to grow as a man and be independent in college. I think it's a good thing to come here and just be a part of something different other than New Jersey.

"The basketball tradition here is impeccable," Gibbs added. "As far as Jamie Dixon [and] his coaching style, it's one of the top programs in the country and especially in the Big East. They won the Big East championship last year so you can't go wrong."

The 6-foot Woodall was one of six Division I recruits to come out of St. Anthony last year. He said he selected the Panthers over Virginia Tech, Iowa State, Rutgers and Seton Hall because he wanted to learn the point guard position from Fields, one of the most respected players in the league.

"It reminded me of being behind Derrick Mercer [at St. Anthony], how good I got in high school playing behind him," Woodall said. "He pushed me to the limit and taught me the ropes of being a point guard at St. Anthony. And now I'm behind Levance Fields and he's one of the best point guards in the country and one of the best point guards to ever come out of Pittsburgh. At the same time you got Brandin Knight here so I have the best of both worlds."

Dixon is well aware that Knight can be a valuable resource when it comes to recruiting.

When it came time for the home visit with Coach Hurley and the 6-5 Cheek, Dixon made sure to bring Knight along.

"I think he's been a great asset," Dixon said. "Moreso than anything is his success. He was Big East Player of the Year here and there are not a lot of those around. That goes back to a guy who was under-recruited and became Big East Player of the Year and Most Improved Player in the Big East [in 2001-02]. Those are good things to talk to recruits about."

Both Gibbs and Woodall are excelling on the court and in the classroom, Dixon said. A strong outside shooter, Gibbs is averaging 5.8 points in 15.8 minutes per game. Woodall missed some time in the preseason with an ankle injury but is coming on as a defensive specialist while averaging 2.2 points in 10.8 minutes.

"They're good kids, good teammates," Dixon said. "They both had 4.0 [GPAs] in the summer. They're doing very well this semester as well. I can't say enough good things about them and where they're headed."

And that in and of itself is the best recruiting tool of all.

"I think we're doing pretty well here so far," Gibbs said. "To see a New Jersey guy go somewhere else and be in a top Big East program can only attract more and more New Jersey players."

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com
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