Since Mike Cook blew out his knee against Duke Dec. 20 and is out for the season, the Panthers must find a way to replace those minutes, as well as his 10.4 points per game. And it looks like three players -- redshirt freshman Gilbert Brown, senior Keith Benjamin and freshman Bradley Wannamaker -- will get an opportunity to make up the difference.
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said Thursday that Brown is the frontrunner to get Cook's starting spot when the sixth-ranked Panthers (11-0) visit Dayton Saturday for an 8 p.m. tip-off, but all three players will get time there.
"Gilbert was out there with the first group (Thursday), but we interchange those guys a lot and they play with each other in different groups,'' Dixon said. "We have a lot of different packages (lineups). We have a lot of flexibility there.''
Benjamin ranked behind the starters with 5.9 points and 16.1 minutes per game, while Brown averaged 4.8 points and 15.5 minutes. However, Brown played 23 minutes against Duke and pulled down seven rebounds.
"I'm excited about the opportunity to play more,'' Brown said. "I'm not sure if I'll start the game, but Coach said we'll work everybody in there. We'll probably know before the game at Dayton.''
Brown didn't believe his game would change much from what he provided off the bench. That's tough defense, an outside shot and a little more athleticism than Cook. But there is one thing that will be different.
"I need to be more aggressive and ready to go from the start,'' Brown said. "And instead of coming in and giving energy to the team I need to be more consistent with what I do. I need to work on things that Mike did well, like going to the basket. If I can do that, along with the things I can do, we'll be all right.''
Benjamin has played in 97 career games for Pitt, including four starts during the 2005-06 season, but he primarily has been a role player. That's about to change, as the Panthers get ready to begin Big East play in about a week.
"I'm kind of used to playing both small forward and shooting guard, because I've done it the past two years now,'' Benjamin said. "But I'm just going to be out there a lot more. ... Now, I think my voice has to be heard a little more, and I have to do more things better. Brad and Gilbert are great players, and I'm sure they'll do an excellent job.''
Wannamaker averaged 11.5 minutes and 3.5 points during the first eight games this season, but he hasn't played at all in the past three contests.
"In our system, it's not too much of an adjustment for Bradley to play that position,'' Dixon said. "He's played that spot with us before, not much, but it's still not going to be a big adjustment. And he's played all three spots on the perimeter, and we recruited him that way. But now he'll play more at the 3.
"Both Keith and Gilbert have been playing very well. Bradley, I kept telling him that his time is coming. And his time is here. ... So, we have a lot of different options, and we'll see what happens the next couple weeks.''
"(But) I don't think we'll be too different a team with Mike not in there,'' Dixon added. "We're still going to be able to handle the ball at that spot. We're going to have good decision-making, the ability to step out and shoot it, as well as put it on the floor. So, I don't think it'll change our team too much.''
Notes: Pitt returned from a four-day holiday break Christmas night and held a practice. ... Freshman Gary McGhee has had some ankle and foot problems, and junior Cassin Diggs has been hampered by a groin injury. However, both are healthy now and should be able to play against the Flyers. ... Cook's surgery is scheduled for Friday, but it could be delayed if more inflammation and swelling in the knee does not decrease. ... It's uncertain whether Cook will be able to get a sixth season of eligibility since he played 11 games this season.
"It's something we haven't really discussed, but it's something that will come up,'' Dixon said. "It's definitely not the time to look into it. We'll see how the surgery goes and how things come into play. We do realize that there would be an appeal process necessary, and that will be down the road.''
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