Seth Davis will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his Hoop Thoughts column.
PITTSBURGH -- The line stretched out the front door at Tessaro's, a cozy burger joint located on Liberty Avenue in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh. My dinner companions were Pitt coach Jamie Dixon and Orlando Antigua, one of his assistants. Despite being in such illustrious company, we had no reservations (Tessaro's doesn't take any) and no way to cut to the front of the line. "That's the great thing about this place," Dixon said. "I have absolutely no juice here."
Indeed, not a single head turned as Dixon walked through the crowded pub toward our table in the back. We were eating just a few hours after Dixon had put his Panthers through their first practice of the new season. If the team can meet its lofty expectations, however, you can expect Dixon's juice-o-meter to go way, way up. Seven of the top eight players return from last year's 25-8 squad, making Pitt the consensus favorite to win the Big East and a legitimate threat to reach its first Final Four since 1941.
Judging by what I saw during the three-hour, fifteen-minute workout in the Peterson Athletics Center Saturday afternoon, this is going to be, from a stylistic standpoint, a different Pittsburgh team than we've seen in the past. The Panthers return one of the nation's top centers in Aaron Gray, a 7-foot, 270-pound senior, but gone are the bruising muscular types that have defined this program in recent years -- guys such as Jaron Brown, Ontario Lett, Chevon Troutman, Chris Taft and Julius Page. This year's edition will instead feature quicker, sleeker athletes such as 6-6 sophomore Sam Young, a long-armed blur who seemed to grab every offensive rebound in practice, and 6-7 sophomore Tyrell Biggs, who has dropped 20 pounds since the end of last season and displayed a surprisingly soft outside touch. Given the plethora of perimeter talent, it's not hard to imagine Dixon deploying a three- or four-guard lineup if the situation calls for it.
The biggest reason -- literally -- for the high hopes is Gray. I didn't realize until I spoke with Gray after practice just how close he was to keeping his name in the NBA draft last spring. "I was sitting in Coach's office at 1:30 in the morning the day of the deadline, trying to make up my mind," he said. "I'm lucky enough that financially I didn't have to leave. One day I'd be saying to myself, 'I'm outta here.' Then the next day I'd think about coming back, knowing we'd be a preseason top 10 team with high expectations. That's a great challenge to have."
Gray told me he believes "100 percent I would have been a top 20 pick," though Dixon indicated over dinner the chances were less absolute. Gray conceded he would have stayed in the draft if he was guaranteed to be a top 10 pick, but now that he's back, he has the chance to be the team's unquestioned leader. Alas, that is not a role he seems inclined to embrace.