PITTSBURGH — Coming in to this season, Pitt center Gary McGhee had high expectations on the defensive side of the ball.

He attended various big man camps in the offseason to improve his play and Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said in November that McGhee had the ability to be the best defensive player in the Big East. Well, McGhee has lived up to that reputation so far, averaging 7.4 rebounds a game on the No. 2 rebounding team in the country while totaling 25 blocks.

However, what has gone under the radar are his improvements offensively.

McGhee has five double-doubles so far this season, eclipsing his total of three from the previous three years combined. In conference games, he averages 11.4 points a game — well above his season average of 7.2 — shooting 67 percent from the field.

“One thing you can’t question is Gary McGhee’s work ethic,” Dixon said after Pitt beat Marquette, 89-81, on Jan. 8. “He cares so much and puts so much time into it.”

Since then, McGhee has continued to make strides. He was just short of a double-double in a 72-57 win at Georgetown with 8 points and 9 rebounds. On Saturday, McGhee got back to double-double status with 13 points and 10 rebounds while going against one of the more efficient and experienced centers in the Big East.

“It’s good any time you can get a double-double, especially against a guy like (Seton Hall’s) Herb Pope,” McGhee said. “He’s a really good player, really good rebounder.”

A testament to McGhee’s progress is evident in one of his weaker areas: free throw shooting. McGhee is a 47 percent free throw shooter on the year, but is 56 percent from the line in Big East play.

The situations he’s made free throws in — like two in a 1-point game at Providence with under 20 seconds to play Jan. 4 — have been a welcome addition to the team and something Dixon says has been a characteristic of this senior class.

“We have seniors (McGhee, Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown) showing improvement in the middle of their senior year,” Dixon said Saturday. “All three of them have made strides in a lot of ways.”

Dixon also pointed out that the seniors’ attitude has become contagious.

“In turn, these young guys have gotten better in this stretch,” he said. “That’s what you wanna have. That’s what you hope to have, but that is not always the case. It seems to be a staple of our program.”

Pitt’s hopes are that every player continues to improve tonight, as No. 4 Syracuse visits the Petersen Events Center at 7:30 p.m. Orange forward Rick Jackson is listed at the top of many offensive and defensive stat lines in the Big East.

At 6-foot-9, 240 pounds and averaging 13.2 points, 11.7 rebounds and over 2 blocks a game, he’ll likely be a prominent focus for McGhee, who will have to have another big conference effort for the Panthers to win.

“We’re really excited to play a big game against Syracuse, a highly ranked team,” McGhee said. “We’re ready to prepare … and we’re looking forward to (tonight).”

Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog

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