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October 28, 2011

Preseason Top 32: No. 9 Pittsburgh

STRENGTHS: Pittsburgh's strength is its starting backcourt, led by senior Ashton Gibbs. He is one of the nation's top offensive players and averaged 16.8 points per game last season. He's also extremely accurate from 3-point range, going 102-of-208 last season (49 percent). The Panthers are counting on Travon Woodall to step into the guard spot vacated by Brad Wanamaker. Gibbs and Woodall give Pitt two guards who can handle the ball. Woodall will be the point guard when Gibbs is on the floor, but Gibbs also can handle the point. Woodall came of the bench but still averaged 21.6 minutes, recording 117 assists and a 2.3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. This is a confident backcourt that doesn't mind the spotlight. Nasir Robinson, who will miss parts of preseason practice with a knee injury, is a versatile but undersized forward who sets the tone with his toughness. J.J. Moore and Lamar Patterson are competing for the wing spot, but both will play. Moore is one of the team's better scorers, and Patterson can contribute at a handful of positions. Overall, Pitt will have plenty of depth and versatility. And, as usual, the Panthers will be a physical and defense-minded group.

C Dante Taylor (6-9/240, Jr.)
F/G Lamar Patterson (6-5/221, Soph.)
F Nasir Robinson (6-5/225, Sr.)
G Ashton Gibbs (6-2/190, Sr.)
G Travon Woodall (5-11/190, Jr.)
F Khem Birch (6-9/220, Fr.)
F J.J. Moore (6-6/205, Soph.)
F Talib Zanna (6-9/230, Soph.)
G Isaiah Epps (6-2/185, R-Fr.)
G Cameron Wright (6-4/205, R-Fr.)

Coach: Jamie Dixon (9th season at Pitt)
Last season's record: 28-6 overall, 15-3 in Big East (1st in league)
Postseason: Lost to Butler in second round of NCAA tournament
Final regular-season RPI: 10th
Last time didn't made NCAA field: 2001

WEAKNESSES: After Gibbs, who will score? Last season, Gibbs was Pitt's only 3-point threat for most of the season. With Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown gone, the Panthers don't have a proven scorer beyond Gibbs. Moore may be the best candidate with his ability to get to the basket. Wanamaker also was Pitt's best playmaker, getting the team set in its offense. Dante Taylor, a five-star prospect in the 2009 class, has yet to deliver. Pitt is counting on him to take over at center for the graduated Gary McGhee. Freshman Khem Birch follows in Taylor's footsteps as a top recruit. He is going to play immediately, but he could face a similar learning curve as Taylor. Pitt also is looking for a third guard; Isaiah Epps and Cameron Wright are candidates after redshirting last season, and freshman John Johnson also is in the conversation.

[More Pittsburgh coverage: PantherLair.com]

OVERVIEW: Jamie Dixon has built the Panthers into the Big East's most consistent program; soon, this will be one of the most consistent programs in the ACC. Pitt has reached 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments, the longest such streak in the Big East. Yet Pitt has yet to claim the biggest prize: a Final Four appearance. In Pitt's decade of tournament appearances, five Big East programs have reached the Final Four (or seven, if you count Louisville and Marquette reaching the national semifinals as Conference USA programs). Pittsburgh again will be a tournament team and the Panthers are looking to redeem themselves after a heartbreaking second-round loss to Butler last season. Gibbs is a star, but the Panthers need some of the supporting cast to grow into more prominent roles.

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David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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