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When Levance Fields suffered a fractured left foot early in the second half against Dayton on Dec. 29, it signaled big trouble for the Panthers. They trailed the Flyers by 13 at the time, and wound up losing by 25. Fields missed the next 12 games, and Pittsburgh went 8-4. The Panthers promptly loss three in a row when he returned to the lineup, though in fairness the first two were road games against Marquette and Notre Dame and the third was a two-point loss to Louisville. After that 8-7 stretch, Fields got better acclimated and his teammates got reacquainted with him. Pittsburgh took off, winning the Big East tournament by dispatching of Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and Georgetown. Fields made the all-tournament team after averaging 11.3 points, 5.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds.
Senior forward Sam Young returns after averaging better than 18 points a game last season.
The Panthers have questions at shooting guard, where Ronald Ramon (8.5 ppg, team-leading 67 3-pointers), Mike Cook (10.4 ppg) and Keith Benjamin (9.1 ppg, 51 3-pointers) are gone. Coach Jamie Dixon will be looking for help on the perimeter, especially someone who can open up the floor with some long-distance shooting. Junior college transfer Jermaine Dixon, former Maryland star Juan Dixon's younger brother, will be an option. He averaged 20.9 points per game as a sophomore at Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College.
Sophomore Brad Wanamaker also could work his way into some significant minutes. He averaged 11 minutes per game as a freshman but really never found his shot, hitting just 32.9 percent for the season. He appeared much improved in the Pittsburgh Pro-Am League, one of the better summer leagues featuring college players from Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Duquesne and Robert Morris.
Young led the team in scoring and blocked shots and was second in steals. He dramatically improved the range on his jump shot, sinking more 3-pointers (44) than he had in his first two seasons combined (17) and making 38.3 percent from behind the arc. The fact teams had to extend and cover him only made him more dangerous off the dribble. He was named the Big East's Most Improved Player and was first-team all-conference after ranking third in the league in scoring. Word is that he has continued all the hard work that made him so much better last season and could have an even bigger year.
Blair turned out to be one of the biggest impact freshmen in the country. His footwork, athleticism and shot-blocking ability stunned opponents. He ranked fourth in the Big East in rebounding, seventh in field-goal percentage and a surprising 11th in steals. Blair posted 14 double-doubles, including seven against NCAA tournament teams. His terrific hands and eagle-like wingspan allow him to match up with taller centers, and it's reasonable to believe he can improve his scoring while maintaining his rebounding and blocked shots.
Gilbert Brown made 15 starts last season as a redshirt freshman and reached double-figure scoring 12 times, including a 12-point effort in the NCAA first-round win over Oral Roberts.
Tyrell Biggs provides valuable minutes off the bench. He saw action in all 37 games last season and did his best work helping Blair and Young on the boards.
The Panthers utilized more transition last year than they had in past seasons. They also run the motion offense and utilize some half-court sets. They'll get the ball to Blair on the blocks or let Fields create.
Coach Dixon will stick with man-to-man about 99 percent of the time.
Shoes to Fill
Ramon. The Panthers have to find somebody willing to take 3-pointers and make them to keep defenses from sagging on Blair.
Must Step Up
A shooting guard. Whether it's Wanamaker or Jermaine Dixon or both, someone has to emerge as a reliable threat on the perimeter to create more room for Blair and Young to operate.
Jermaine Dixon. Freshman Ashton Gibbs may see some action because he's the best pure perimeter-shooting option, but Dixon has the more polished game and is a solid defender.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.