02/27/2010 3:09 PM ET
Pitt lacks stars, but primed for hardware
Panthers sit in third place in tough Big East
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
The success that the Panthers are enjoying this season is a surprise to everyone but themselves. (AP)

NEW YORK - Sam Young isn't surprised one bit.

The former Pittsburgh standout and current Memphis Grizzlies rookie isn't shocked one bit at the success the Panthers are enjoying.

"Not at all. Even though they lost some great guys in the program, still this is a program. It's a system and the system works," Young said at halftime of No. 12 Pitt's 71-64 victory over St. John's (15-13, 5-11 Big East) at Madison Square Garden.

Young addressed the current players at the half. He was in town because the Grizzlies faced the Knicks Saturday night as part of a split college/NBA doubleheader at the Garden.

Despite losing four players who combined for 286 career starts -- Young, DeJuan Blair, Levance Fields and Tyrell Biggs -- the Panthers are now 22-7, 11-5 in the Big East and headed to the NCAA tournament for the ninth consecutive season, seven straight under head coach Jamie Dixon.

Pitts doesn't have a single player who is likely to be named to the All-Big East First Team.

Yet the Panthers could be taking home some serious hardware when the conference hands out its awards next month.

Dixon is a legitimate candidate for Big East Coach of the Year.

Sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs could become the sixth Pitt player to win Most Improved Player honors in the last 11 years.

Senior guard Jermaine Dixon has a legitimate shot at Defensive Player of the Year.

And junior forward Gilbert Brown is in the running for Sixth Man of the Year.

The general consensus is that Jamie Dixon, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim or Marquette's Buzz Williams will be named Big East Coach of the Year.

Pitt was picked to finish ninth in the Big East and currently sits in third, behind Syracuse and Villanova. The Panthers own victories over both the Orange (on the road) and the Wildcats, who faced off Saturday night in a battle for a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.

Boeheim's Orange were picked to finish sixth and currently sit in first. Marquette was picked 12th and is now fifth.

Despite having the least experienced team in the Big East, Jamie Dixon's team is six spots higher than it was projected to be and could be headed for a coveted double-bye in the Big East tournament.

"I think in the beginning a lot of people questioned his abilities and I think he's proven over the years time and time again that with the elite players that nobody even knows about, that he can get it done," Young said of Jamie Dixon.

St. John's coach Norm Roberts points out that despite Pitt's youth, the current players have experience going against last year's starters in practice.

"Those guys played against Sam Young and them every day [last season]," Roberts said. "Why do you think Sam Young and those guys are so good? It's because they're going against those guys every day."

One of "those guys" is Gibbs, a 6-2 sophomore from Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, N.J., who scored 12 points in the win.

He is one of four players who stepped into the starting lineup this season and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas already gave Gibbs his vote at the halfway mark for Most Improved Player honors. Gibbs figures to compete with Notre Dame's Tim Abromaitis (17.3 ppg) for the award.

Gibbs has started all 29 games at guard and entered the game averaging 16.2 points and 2.8 rebounds, while shooting 38 percent (64-for-164) from beyond the arc.

After helping the Jamie Dixon-coached USA Under-19 team win the gold medal last summer at the FIBA World Championship in Auckland, New Zealand, Gibbs has 10 games of 20 points or more. "I haven't really looked at it but the numbers kind of speak for itself," Jamie Dixon said when asked if Gibbs deserved Most Improved Player honors.

In the last 11 years, five Pitt players have already won the award - Ricardo Greer, Brandin Knight, Carl Krauser, Aaron Gray and Young.

"[Gibbs] stepped up in a big way because last year he was just a role player but that's what we needed him to be," Young said. "He's a very hard worker. Even last year when he first got in he was a hard worker and it's paying off.

As for Jermaine Dixon (no relation to the coach), he is Pitt's lone returning starter and has become the team's stopper.

After suffering a sprained ankle, Jermaine Dixon returned to the Pitt lineup against West Virginia Feb. 3. He did not play against South Florida and the Bulls' Dominique Jones poured in 37 points.

Yet Dixon yielded just 11 total points to Seton Hall star Jeremy Hazell in Pitt's two games against the Pirates. In the second game, he held Hazell to only two points on 1-for-7 shooting in 32 minutes.

Jermaine Dixon also held UConn's Stanley Robinson to three second-half points, limited Wesley Johnson of Syracuse to 19 points, most after the game was already decided, and contained Cincinnati's Lance Stephenson to 15 points, three in the second half.

In this game, St. John's star Dwight Hardy scored 15 points on 4 of 15 shooting with Dixon guarding him part of the time.

As for Brown, he may have boosted his candidacy for Sixth Man of the Year honors after scoring 13 points off the bench against the Red Storm.

After missing the first 11 games of the season due to an academic suspension, the 6-6 Brown has played in all 18 games since the suspension, averaging 10.6 points and 3.2 rebounds.

"Whatever role I've been given since I've been here, I just embrace it and try to make the best out of it. I really want to be on a winning, whether I'm starting or whether I'm being sixth or seventh man. Our success as a team is the most important thing and everything else comes second to that," Brown said.

But, still, you wouldn't mind winning some hardware, right?

"It would be great to win that," Brown said, "but that's left up to the coaches."

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com and follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AdamZagoria.
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