Jamie Dixon has heard the question repeatedly: What will you do for an encore? The second-year coach of the Pittsburgh Panthers set the bar high in his rookie season, guiding the program to a school-best 31-5 record, the Big East regular-season championship and a berth in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. He went toe-to-toe with the likes of Jim Calhoun of Connecticut and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and held his own, earning Big East Coach of the Year honors.
Dixon returns a potent nucleus in flashy point guard Carl Krauser and powerful big men Chris Taft and Chevon Troutman, but he must replace veteran starters Julius Page and Jaron Brown, a duo that carried Pittsburgh to three consecutive Sweet 16s.
"We need some guys to step up; we need some surprises," said Dixon, who produced one of the top defensive teams in the nation in 2003-04. "We have talent here. We just have to bring it all together."
FRONTCOURTTaft is among the most gifted big men in Pittsburgh history, a powerful force whom Boeheim described as one of the top three centers in the nation. Taft earned conference Rookie of the Year honors after averaging nearly 10.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. He is unflappable in big games and has toned his already menacing 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame. The Pittsburgh center could be the most dominating interior player in the league.
Teaming with Taft is the ubiquitous Troutman, a power forward who combines strength, speed and savvy under the basket. This could be his year to flourish, particularly if defenses are geared toward Taft. He's shot at a 68.4 percent clip from the field the past two seasons and, similar to Taft, runs the floor like a guard. His biggest strength is playing shut-down defense on the best players in the league, as Emeka Okafor, Hakim Warrick and Ryan Gomes discovered last season.
The small forward spot is somewhat precarious; nobody on hand can meet the standards Brown set on both ends of the floor. Senior Mark McCarroll is a scorer (26 vs. Georgia, 15 vs. Syracuse and UConn) but lacks defensive and rebounding skills. Seldom-used Levon Kendall offers a soft scoring touch, but he is raw. Ditto for junior college transfer John DeGroat. The possibility exists that Troutman would move to small forward, Taft to power forward and 7-0 sophomore Aaron Gray to center.
"We have options," Dixon said. "But I don't know if that's the best thing. You'd rather have everything firmly in place."
BACKCOURTKrauser can do it all, but sometimes he tries to do too much. If he can rein himself in and get others involved in the offense, he'll be the best point guard in the conference. The junior from the Bronx made a concerted effort in the off-season to tone down his shoot-first philosophy, although he remains Pittsburgh's best offensive option with his ability to slash, shoot and take over a game.
"I just want to get us past the Sweet 16, and I'll do whatever it takes to get us there," said Krauser. "Winning's all that matters now."
Krauser must adjust to life without Page but should get instant help from freshmen Keith Benjamin, a slam-dunk champion, and fellow Bronx native Ronald Ramon, a pure long-range shooter who could be a starter when conference play begins. Antonio Graves gained valuable experience as a reserve and will push for Page's job, while DeGroat, who offers a blend of size and athleticism, could also step in. Yuri Demetris, a skilled shooter who must become more aggressive on offense, will be among the top reserves.
FINAL ANALYSISThe Panthers have made it no farther than the Sweet 16 the past three seasons, and this year shouldn't be any different. Too many question marks surround the shooting guard and small forward spots. Brown and Page will be missed, not only for their playing skills but also for the intangibles they brought to the program.
Of course, it's never wise to count these Panthers out. If Krauser, Taft and Troutman can carry the team early, perhaps the newcomers will come around. And maybe -- just maybe -- Pittsburgh will take a step farther in the NCAA tournament.