Pitt's Wanamaker headlines unsung seniors making nationwide impact
So far, this season is more about the rise of unsung seniors than hyped freshmen
Brad Wanamaker, a self-described "playmaker", has become an all-around stud
Other senior surprises: Minnesota's Blake Hoffarber, Miss. State's Ravern Johnson
The identical Wanamaker twins were born 71 minutes apart -- Brian following Brad on July 25, 1989 -- and their early basketball education consisted of tagging along with their father, Brad Sr., to streetball courts in their native Philadelphia. "There ain't a playground in Philly that we didn't go to and play, and my sons will tell you that," he said. As college seniors his twins are tough, versatile guards with nearly identical stat lines: Brian averages 15.8 points, 4.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds; Brad averages 15.4 points, 5.2 assists and 5.0 rebounds.
What separated them when they simultaneously stepped on the floor last Friday night was 1,576 miles: Brian toils on the fringe at NAIA's Texas Wesleyan, which was playing in Waxahachie, Texas, while Brad operates squarely in the mainstream for No. 5 Pittsburgh, which was playing Texas on ESPN in the final of the 2K Sports Classic. They keep tabs on each other through postgame phone calls, with their lone competition being who can record the first triple-double, because, as Brian said, "We both do a little bit of everything."
The Wanamakers have also done their share of waiting. This summer, when they were teammates in the Pittsburgh Basketball Club's Pro-Am League and trained together on Pitt's campus, Brian said they pushed each other to prepare for breakthrough final campaigns. Brian, a journeyman who played for Central Connecticut State as a freshman, then Lon Morris JC in Jacksonville, Texas, as a sophomore before landing at Texas Wesleyan in Fort Worth, has become a star for the first time. Brad stayed in one place, but he was a bit player for his first two years with the Panthers, and a glue guy as a junior while averaging 12.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists. He's finally beginning to receive national attention as an all-around talent as a senior, having improved his field-goal percentage from 43.9 percent to 54.0, and his assist-to-turnover ratio from 1.74-to-1 to 2.17-to-1.
The first two weeks of the 2010-11 season were more about the emergence of unsung seniors like Brad than they were about the unveiling of the Class of 2010's ultra-hyped freshmen. Wanamaker's 24-point, eight-assist effort on Nov. 8 -- the season's opening day -- helped Pitt avoid an upset by NIT semifinalist Rhode Island, and he continued that roll into his next two games, scoring 17 in each. At the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan, unranked Minnesota received a huge boost from senior shooting guard Blake Hoffarber, who had scored in double-figures just once for them last March. The lefty gunner had 16 points and nine assists in a first-round win over Western Kentucky, then poured in 20 to help stun No. 9 North Carolina in the semifinals. He scored 12 more in a championship-game win over West Virginia, helping establish the Gophers as a legitimate Big Ten contender. SEC dark horse Mississippi State has been carried thus far by senior guard Ravern Johnson, who averaged 13.5 points as a junior but went off for 32, 19 and 25 in his first three games -- all victories -- as a senior.
Out West, San Diego State's statement-making road upset of then-No. 11 Gonzaga on Nov. 16 was keyed by 6-foot-8 power forward Billy White, who'd never been a star in his previous three years as a starter, but exploded for 30 points and nine rebounds (seven of them offensive). Aztecs coach Steve Fisher called it White's "best performance ever," saying, "I've never seen him be that active on the glass." Sophomore Kawhi Leonard remains their star, but versatile, auxiliary talents like White -- who also occupies the top position in the Aztecs' press, and is quick enough to switch onto point guards off ball-screens -- have made SDSU the most impressive team in the Mountain West thus far. As rankings are re-evaluated to remove preseason hype, it would be wise to more stock in teams with valuable vets rather than fawning over potential.
Eighth-year Pitt coach Jamie Dixon may have his best shot at reaching a Final Four this season, due to the efficient backcourt combo of junior Ashton Gibbs (who's averaging 19.0 points and 4.0 assists) and Wanamaker. Dixon was enamored with Wanamaker's toughness when he was a four-star prospect out of Philly's Roman Catholic High, and the Panthers coach defended Wanamaker against critics when he wasn't an instant-impact player at the college level, languishing in the rotation behind perimeter players such as Levance Fields, Sam Young and Ronald Ramon. "I always believed [Wanamaker] was going to be a great player," Dixon said. "He was behind some good players."
In the '10-11 Pitt scheme, Gibbs is the designated point guard, bringing up the ball on the majority of possessions, but much of the offense is run through Wanamaker on the wing, where he describes his role simply as "playmaker." Texas so feared his playmaking skills that it assigned its best on-ball defender, Dogus Balbay, to Wanamaker last Friday. "We wanted to try to control him off the dribble, so he wouldn't break down our defense and create kick-out opportunities," Longhorns assistant Russ Springmann explained.
But that freed up Gibbs, who was guarded by lesser defenders, to score 24 points on a barrage of feathery jumpers. Wanamaker still managed a team-high five assists, ensuring that, by week's end, he and Brian could be proud of another symmetrical stat: Their teams are both 5-0.
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