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Pitt’s basketball program continues to move ahead

In late September, Pitt received a verbal commitment from one of the nation’s top high school basketball players.

Schools such as Connecticut, Kentucky and North Carolina had courted Notre Dame (Mass.) Prep star Khem Birch, rated as the No. 1 power forward in the Class of 2012 by ESPN.com.

Provided he signs a national letter of intent, the 6-foot-9, 210-pound Birch will become the highest rated player to pick to Pitt in nearly a quarter-century.

“When you are able to win for a sustained time,” said Gary Parrish, a senior men’s basketball writer for CBSSports.com, “it opens new doors for you.”

Birch’s commitment was a landmark moment for a program that became the winningest team in the Big East using mainly unheralded and underrated recruits who flourished in head coach Jamie Dixon’s system.

For all of Pitt’s success in the past decade, the best could be yet to come for the Panthers.

With a successful young coach — Dixon turns 45 on Wednesday — one of the top facilities in America, national exposure and a string of NCAA Tournament bids out of the Big East, Pitt is poised to take another step up in national recruiting.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Parrish said. “Jamie has been really good at winning with guys that weren’t perceived as top prospects out of high school. … He has been able to build the program to where it’s a national brand. What he’s done in the Big East is off the charts, it’s insane.”

Birch’s commitment — the highest rated player since Brian Shorter in 1987 — came two years after Dante Taylor became the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with Pitt since that legendary ’87 class.

The Panthers, which will open its 2010-11 season against visiting Rhode Island on Monday, are No. 5 in the Associated Press preseason top 25. It marked the fourth time in the past nine years that Pitt entered the season as a top-5 team.

“Every year we get better and better,” said senior guard Brad Wanamaker, a top-100 player in the Class of 2007. “The next couple of years I believe we have some top recruits coming in. The future for coach Dixon and the Pittsburgh program is bright.”

National analysts agree. CBS Sports.com rated Pitt as the No. 5 school in the nation in its summer-time “Flourishing Five” series, rating universities with the best football and basketball combinations.

Pitt beat out schools such as Oklahoma, West Virginia and Michigan State mainly because the ratings were based on what the future holds.

“I think our opportunities are significant,” Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said. “I think we’ve got a tremendous culture. Jamie is a great leader. The young men in the program are terrific. Ultimately, when you have success, the right kind of people want to come to be part of something special.”

Although Pitt has the best record in Big East play (109-41) over the past nine years, and only three schools in the nation — Kansas, Duke and Gonzaga — have won at a better clip (.790) during that span, Dixon constantly pushes his players to improve. In its past nine NCAA Tournaments, Pitt has no Final Fours and only one Elite Eight appearance.

“We’re always of the mentality that it’s never enough and we’re never satisfied,” Dixon said. “Even having the best record in the Big East by a large margin, it’s not enough. We are always challenging ourselves and you have to do that.”

Besides Birch, Pitt also landed Steve Adams, a four-star 6-foot-10 center from New Zealand for the Class of 2012.

The Panthers also are in the running for a pair of top-15 shooting guards, Omar Calhoun of Christ the King (N.Y.) and Myles Davis of Notre Dame Prep.

The four-man Class of 2011, which will begin its national letter of intent period on Wednesday, is led by Durand Johnson, a 6-6 wing from Baltimore.

Dixon will target the same type of recruits — hard-working, unselfish players from winning programs. Dixon has an outstanding staff with first-year assistant Pat Skerry, the lead recruiter for Birch, along with Brandin Knight and Pat Sandle.

“I think it’s matter of time before the championships and great things happen,” said Clark Francis, editor of HoopScoop.com. “As long as Jamie Dixon is there and they keep hiring good assistants, it will take care of itself.”

Additional Information:

Tonight’s game

Rhode Island (26-10 last season) at No. 5 Pitt (25-9)

7 p.m. today, Petersen Events Center

TV/radio: ESPNU/KDKA-FM (93.7), Pitt Radio Network

Favorite: Pitt by 11

Series: Pitt leads, 5-1

Last meeting: 2002, Pitt, 87-71

Outlook: In the first Division I game to be played this season, Pitt looks to win its 48th consecutive home game against a nonconference opponent. Pitt is 96-1 in its past 97 games against nonconference foes at Petersen Events Center.

With returning starter Nasir Robinson (knee) sidelined for another three to four weeks, Talib Zanna, a redshirt freshman, is expected to get his first start. Gilbert Brown, the team’s third-leading scorer last season (10.7 ppg), will be making his first start since 2007-08, his redshirt freshman season.

Gibbs, a first-team all-Big East selection, leads a balanced attack. Pitt has won 13 consecutive season openers. Delroy James, a second-team all-Atlantic 10 selection, averaged 13.2 points and 5.3 rebounds last season to lead Rhode Island, which was picked fifth in the A-10 preseason poll. Akeem Richmond is one of the top 3-point shooters in the A-10.

Probable starters

RHODE ISLAND

Coach: Jim Baron, 10th season at Rhode Island (157-128)

F Ryan Brooks 6-8 So. 1.2 PPG

F Delroy James 6-8 Sr. 13.2 PPG

G Akeem Richmond 6-1 So. 8.7 PPG

G Marquis Jones 6-1 Sr. 5.7 PPG

G Daniel West 6-2 So. 0.0 PPG

PITT

Coach: Jamie Dixon, eighth season (188-54)

F Talib Zanna 6-9 Fr. 0.0 PPG

F Gilbert Brown 6-6 Sr. 10.7 PPG

C Gary McGhee 6-11 Sr. 6.9 PPG

G Brad Wanamaker 6-4 Sr. 12.3 PPG

G Ashton Gibbs 6-2 Jr. 15.7 PPG


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