Tipping Off The Big East Countdown: #7 PittsburghPosted by Will Tucker on October 31st, 2012
Despite being picked fourth in last year’s preseason Big East coaches’ poll, Jamie Dixon’s squad went 5-13 in conference play and finished at a dismal 13th place in the standings. Pitt fans expect a big rebound from the disappointment of last season: Their team returns fifth-year senior Tray Woodall, seven of its nine top scorers, and a blockbuster recruiting class featuring hulking Kiwi Steven Adams, the school’s highest-ranked basketball commitment of all-time. Big East coaches seem to agree that Pitt is on the uptick, placing Pitt sixth in last week’s preseason Big East coaches’ poll. While the writers at RTC’s Big East microsite have their reservations about Pitt’s ability to reverse course over a single offseason, there’s enough talent at Jamie Dixon’s disposal to envision a substantial improvement. But the loss of leading scorer and leader Ashton Gibbs, coupled with lingering doubts about Woodall’s health, makes it difficult to place Pitt any higher in our predicted standings.
2011-12 Record: 22-17, 4-14
2011-12 Postseason: 5-1, College Basketball Invitational Champions
Pitt opens up the season with a fairly rigorous non-conference slate. Oakland, Detroit and crosstown rival Duquesne will test the Panthers in November, while neutral-court games in Madison Square Garden against Michigan, Virginia and Kansas State could materialize depending on how the Preseason NIT bracket unfolds. Apart from that tournament in late November, Pitt won’t leave the familiar confines of Pittsburgh until January 5, when it travels to Rutgers.
The Panthers draw a fairly advantageous Big East schedule in 2012-13, with home-and-home series against Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul and Villanova (two of whom we predicted to finish in the bottom third of the conference). The most brutal stretch of the Big East schedule takes place between the end of January and the third week of February, when Pitt plays at Louisville, Syracuse, at Cincinnati, at Marquette, Notre Dame and at St. John’s. How the team weathers that gauntlet will likely define its season.
Senior point guard Tray Woodall (31 MPG, 11.7 PPG, 6.1 APG) figures to be the linchpin of this Pitt team, much as Ashton Gibbs was expected to carry last year’s squad. The 5’11″ Brooklyn native showed flashes of brilliance early last season but a nagging abdominal injury kept him on the bench, and at times made Woodall a liability on the court once he returned. Lamar Patterson (28.5 MPG, 9.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG), whom Pitt blog Cardiac Hill describes as the team’s “best all around player,” returns after shooting 41% from beyond the arc last season. The arrival of heralded blue chip recruit Steven Adams allows junior Talib Zanna (19.3 MPG, 6.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG) to assume his natural position at the power forward spot.
Pitt’s biggest loss is departed scorer Ashton Gibbs. The productive senior was expected to lead Jamie Dixon’s team to a Top 25 finish last season, but ultimately shot the worst percentage of his college career and suffered noticeably from Woodall’s absence. Nevertheless, Gibbs was one of the team’s only proven scorers, and his departure leaves major offensive shoes to fill. Similarly, senior Nasir Robinson (29 MPG, 10.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG) was the leading rebounder on a team that struggled to box out on defense. His absence, coupled with the transfer of Khem Birch, leaves some major uncertainty in Pitt’s promising but unproven frontcourt.
Whom to Watch
Consensus top 10 big man recruit Steven Adams and senior leader Tray Woodall will key Pitt’s success in 2012-13. Adams must pan out better than Dixon’s last blue chip big man, Khem Birch, in order for the Panthers to finish in the top half of the Big East. But if last season’s collapse is any indication, Pitt will ultimately go only as far as Tray Woodall can take them. If the senior can remain healthy for an entire season, Pitt has a great chance to make some noise in the Big East and beyond.
This Pittsburgh team has the talent and experience to distinguish itself in what figures to be a fairly muddled Big East. Nevertheless, Woodall’s tumultuous junior campaign doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence that he can put it all together for an entire season. Though Pitt’s starting five has the talent to contend for a Big East title, there’s little proven depth to support them. The Panthers’ lame duck season in the Big East will witness improvement, but it’s difficult to predict a total renaissance with all of the questions surrounding Pitt’s roster.