October 14, 2009

Taylor, Pittsburgh look to continue tourney streak

This is part of our series on freshmen who must make a big impact next season for their teams to challenge for league titles and get to the NCAA tournament.
For many freshmen, the toughest challenges come off the court as they adjust to leaving home and living away from their families for the first time.

In that case, Pittsburgh forward Dante Taylor already has a leg up on his peers.

Taylor went to high school more than 250 miles from his hometown of Greenburgh, N.Y. His family sent him to the National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Md., in hopes he would turn his life around and improve his grades.

If he also developed into a better basketball player, that would be a bonus.

"It was a better environment," Taylor said. "Being out there was going to be a better opportunity for me."

That difficult decision is paying major dividends now that Taylor has arrived at Pittsburgh as the No. 14 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class.

"Had we not made the decision on Dante getting out of [his hometown], God knows what would have happened," said Taylor's mother, Lisa Sharpe. "This was the best decision he could have made."

Taylor estimates that he stood about 6 feet 5 and weighed roughly 230 pounds when he arrived at National Christian Academy. He has since grown 4 inches while keeping his playing weight about 235. His physique isn't the only thing he has streamlined.

Taylor gradually adjusted to National Christian Academy's disciplinary standards, which included wearing school uniforms. He improved his grades and thrived amid the smaller class sizes.

It's going to take a special kind of person to fill the void created by former Pittsburgh post player DeJuan Blair's departure. Taylor's high school experience helped him gain the maturity to handle that assignment.

"I knew he was in good hands," Sharpe said. "It was more than just a school. It was like a family."

The family atmosphere was obvious from Taylor's living arrangements. For much of the time that he spent in Maryland, he lived with National Christian Academy coach Trevor Brown. That wasn't an unusual arrangement. Brown said he and his wife have hosted about 15 of his players at one time or another.

"I think it helped him," Brown said. "A lot of times when kids are away from home, it helps to have that home setting, where it's not just all about basketball or all about school. I tried to provide that for him."

Taylor's mother noticed the difference. She talked to her son every weekend while Taylor attended National Christian Academy. They also would visit each other during the holidays. She soon discovered that Taylor had abandoned the bad habits that had caused him to leave home in the first place.

"He wasn't a bad kid," Sharpe said, "but I think if he would have stayed [in New York], it would have gotten worse."

It has been a while
Dante Taylor is the first McDonald's All-American to sign with Pittsburgh in more than two decades. Here's a look at Pitt's McDonald's All-Americans.
Charles Smith1984
Jerome Lane1985
Bobby Martin1987
Brian Shorter1987
Dante Taylor2009
Taylor also expanded his basketball knowledge by living at Brown's house. Brown considers himself a basketball addict who frequently watches classic games on television. Taylor couldn't help but learn by osmosis as he spent more time with his coach.

"It definitely helped me a lot," Taylor said. "We'd go to the gym every day, and I learned a lot from watching NBA games. He'd show me lots of different stuff. And I always had the opportunity to go to the gym because I always had a ride."

Taylor eventually developed into an elite player. He averaged 23.8 points, 13 rebounds and 3.0 blocks as a senior at National Christian Academy. Taylor also scored 15 points and pulled down six rebounds in the McDonald's All-American Game.

His status as a five-star prospect makes him a unique fit at Pitt, which has emerged as one of the nation's top programs without relying heavily on elite recruits.

Taylor is the first McDonald's All-American in more than two decades to sign with Pittsburgh. The Panthers have landed no other five-star prospects since Rivals.com began covering college basketball recruiting in 2003. The only other top-50 recruit to sign with Pitt during that stretch was 6-10 center Chris Taft, the No. 41 recruit in 2003.

That didn't bother Taylor, who committed to the Panthers the summer before his senior year of high school.

"I liked the environment," Taylor said. "I liked the coaching staff. I liked the types of plays they had. I liked their work ethic. I liked the city."

The city will fall in love with Taylor if he can help Pittsburgh overcome the loss of Blair, who shared Big East player of the year honors with Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet last season. Blair ranked fourth in the nation in rebounds (12.3 per game) and led the nation in offensive rebounds (5.6 per game).

Taylor now faces the extraordinary challenge of trying to replace one of the most beloved and tenacious players in Pitt history. Blair grew up just 600 yards from Pittsburgh's home court and developed into an elite performer who played bigger than his 6-7 frame. Nobody can realistically expect Taylor to come in and match Blair's production immediately.

"What made DeJuan Blair special besides his physical strength and long arms were his intangibles," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "He hunted down every rebound and really had an instinct for where the ball's going to be. It's hard to compare any player to him.

Can they keep it up?
The departures of DeJuan Blair, Levance Fields and Sam Young have raised speculation that Pittsburgh could struggle to earn a ninth consecutive NCAA tournament bid. Here's a look at the teams with the longest current streaks of NCAA bids.
Michigan State12
North Carolina6
"Dante Taylor in a lot of ways is more talented than DeJuan Blair. I don't know if Dante has that relentless motor, instinct and intangible quality that DeJuan had. That's no knock on Dante. Dante is a great rebounder and a great athlete with a big-time body. He's your prototypical power forward. He can rebound and score inside. He runs the floor very well and also has some face-up game. But to expect him to put up the numbers DeJuan Blair put up, I don't know. DeJuan turned out to be an extraordinary college player."

Taylor got an early look at what to expect when he joined Florida guard Kenny Boynton this summer as the only incoming freshmen to try out for the U.S. under-19 team that won the gold medal at the FIBA World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand. Pitt's Jamie Dixon coached the under-19 team.

Neither Taylor nor Boynton made the roster. Taylor arrived for the tryouts a little out of shape because he wasn't working out much in order to spend more time with his mother, who spent nearly two weeks in the hospital after being diagnosed with a blood clot in her right lung.

Though he didn't make the team, Taylor believes he profited from the opportunity.

"It was a really good experience," he said. "It showed me I wasn't there yet. I had to continue to work hard. It gave me an understanding of what it was going to be like when I got to Pittsburgh. I already had a head start as to what the coaches expected from me, and I played against guys who already had been through their [freshman] year."

Taylor plans to use that education to help a young Pitt roster overcome expectations. Blair isn't the only Pitt star who moved on after helping the Panthers earn their first No. 1 ranking and first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament last season. The Panthers also must replace steady point guard Levance Fields and star small forward Sam Young.

That trio carried Pittsburgh to unprecedented heights last season before a heartbreaking loss to Villanova in the East Regional final. Most preseason forecasts have Pittsburgh struggling to earn its ninth consecutive NCAA tournament bid, particularly now that shooting guard Jermaine Dixon could miss the start of the season as he recovers from a fractured bone in his right foot and small forward Gilbert Brown is academically ineligible for the fall semester.

Taylor prefers to look on the bright side. He already has achieved his dream of earning a college scholarship. His mother has recovered from her blood clot and will be able to attend at least some of his games. He savors the challenge that awaits him.

"Coach keeps stressing every day we can be one of the best defensive teams," Taylor said. "We're just looking forward to the season. We're not talking anything bad about what we've lost. We look at the people we've got now. We've got a good team."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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