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WHILE OTHER mothers stressed the importance of eating broccoli to their children, Jacqueline Gibbs focused on making free throws. "I didn't listen to her at first because she didn't play basketball," says Ashton Gibbs, now the Panthers star point guard. But her message nevertheless sunk in. Last season the junior shot 88.4% from the free throw line (15th best in the nation).
And Jacqueline continues to provide motherly encouragement. Before each game Gibbs's phone lights up with a last-minute text message, usually a motivational Bible verse. A favorite, from Proverbs 23:7, reads, "As a man thinketh, so is he," or as Ashton interprets it, "If you believe in your heart that you're the best, you will be."
The Panthers follow a similar line of thinking. This time last year Pitt was ranked ninth out of 16 in the Big East Conference coaches' poll. The consensus was that the team was young and the season would be spent rebuilding. But coach Jamie Dixon's squad was one of the biggest surprises of 2009--10, winning 25 games.
This season, with four starters back, the Panthers are ranked atop the Big East poll. "I told [the team], our commitment, our work ethic can't change," says Dixon.
The Panthers are taking that statement to heart. Says 250-pound senior center Gary McGhee of the high expectations, "It's good pressure. We look forward to proving everybody right this year." Dixon says he expects the burly McGhee—seventh in the league in blocks last season (1.74 per game)—to be the best defensive center in the conference.
But Gibbs is the face of what is now the best team in one of the country's most competitive conferences. "We need to go into every game with an underdog mentality, like we have to prove something," the point guard says. If Gibbs & Co. can stay hungry, the Panthers could be frightening.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Coach Jamie Dixon (5th season)
2009--10 record 25--9
Big East 13--5 (T-2nd)