For Nasir Robinson, 0.8 seconds seemed to last a lifetime. That's how he felt after his foul on Butler's Matt Howard—90 feet from the Bulldogs' basket—led to tie-breaking free throws and a crushing third-round NCAA tournament exit for No. 1 seed Pitt last March. The play haunted Robinson for weeks, and a deluge of nasty messages on his Facebook page didn't help. "I'm a strong person," says Robinson. "Once summer league started, I put it behind me."
Robinson will likely have an opportunity to redeem himself this season as a senior leader of one of the strongest lineups in the Big East. That's thanks largely to senior guard Ashton Gibbs, a versatile scorer and brilliant shooter who hit 49.0% of his threes (third in the nation) and 88.9% of his free throws in 2010--11. He announced in May that he would remain with the program after briefly flirting with the NBA. "[Even if] we don't run anything for him, he'll get a loose ball and make that shot," says coach Jamie Dixon. "You need a guy to take that ball to the basket, and he does it better than anybody."
Gibbs and junior point guard Tray Woodall will both be in charge of running Dixon's methodical motion offense, which ranked fifth best in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency (119.8) last season. The crafty Robinson, who missed two weeks of practice in order to recover from surgery on his right meniscus—during the second week of October he tore it for the second time in two seasons—will handle most of the dirty work down low. He'll get help from junior Dante Taylor, a former five-star recruit who worked hard in the off-season to improve his midrange jumper, and sophomore Lamar Patterson, who lost nearly 20 pounds. Freshman Khem Birch, a highly recruited 6'9" 220-pounder from Montreal, will be in the mix immediately.
The 46-year-old Dixon, who is starting his ninth season in Pittsburgh, is the only active coach to guide his last six teams to an NCAA tournament victory at the same school. (John Calipari also did it with Memphis and Kentucky.) With the talent the Panthers have, just adding to that total won't be enough. Says Gibbs, "We're good enough to win a national title."
That would be the memory of a lifetime.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
COACH Jamie Dixon (9th season)
2010--11 RECORD 28--6 BIG EAST 15--3 (1st)
NCAA TOURNAMENT Round of 32
*High school stats
PERCENT OF Pittsburgh's field goals that were assisted (third in the country) according to Synergy Sports, a testament to the Panthers' emphasis on off-the-ball movement and floor spacing.
After Pitt earns a No. 1 seed for the third time in four seasons, the backcourt chemistry of Ashton Gibbs and Tray Woodall catalyzes a trip to the Final Four.
The Panthers, who have two straight early exits from the NCAA tournament by a combined four points, fall victim to the Jamie Dixon postseason jinx—again.
NASIR ROBINSON With an arsenal of crafty moves, the 6'5" senior more than holds his own against the bigger forwards in the Big East.