Season In Review: Pittsburgh PanthersPosted by mlemaire on May 15th, 2013
If you are one of those glass half-full type of people, then you could easily point out that a season which saw Pittsburgh finish 24-9 and 12-6 in the Big East is a giant step forward from the year before when the Panthers went just 22-17 and 5-13 in the conference. But chances are that if you are a Pittsburgh basketball fan, you aren’t one of those glass half-full type of people and that is because all of Pitt’s regular season success has never translated into anything more than a single trip to the Elite Eight and a few Sweet Sixteen appearances. The Panthers were good enough to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, which likely saved coach Jamie Dixon from a wave of criticism this offseason, but it wasn’t exactly a triumphant return to the Big Dance. Advanced metrics loved the Panthers because of the team’s exceptional efficiency on both ends of the floor, but that didn’t stop them from shooting 35.1 percent from the field in a first-round clunker against Wichita State and departing from the NCAA Tournament in unceremonious fashion.
Most pundits were cautiously bullish on the Panthers’ chances of rebounding from the 2011-12 debacle. Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson were both gone, but the team returned basically every other contributing player and also added Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler (15.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 46.1% FG as a sophomore with the Chippewas) and ballyhooed freshman center Steven Adams, a seven-footer from New Zealand who was universally considered an NBA talent. No one expected the Panthers to shock the world this season, but both the coaches and our writers had Pitt pegged as one of the top five teams in the conference, and during the regular season at least, they made us look smart.
Despite the disappointing finish, there are plenty of team-wide positives Dixon can point to this offseason. For starters, the Panthers’ trademark defense returned with a flourish. After finishing outside the top 150 in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2011-12, the Panthers leaped all the way back into the top 20 in that category by creating turnovers and contesting shooters on every possession. The offense was even more efficient, finishing just outside the top 10 in adjusted offensive efficiency thanks in large part to the team’s terrific offensive rebounding, taking care of the basketball, and insistence on scoring inside of 20 feet. Also, he very much looked the part of a freshman point guard at times this season, but James Robinson (6.1 PPG and 3.5 APG in just 26.6 MPG) is going to develop into an excellent floor general for Dixon as quickly as next season. Neither Woodall nor Lamar Patterson took their games to the next level, but they were still the only two consistent offensive threats on the roster. Even Adams (7.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 57.7 FG%) proved himself to be an excellent prospect, although he didn’t exactly set the conference ablaze like so many had predicted.
There is nothing interesting about reading another paragraph about how bad Pittsburgh’s non-conference schedule was but it continues to be worth mentioning until the Panthers actually do something about it. It isn’t common to see a team that went 12-6 in the Big East end up as a #8 seed playing a team as good as Wichita State in the first round, but when you play the 322nd most difficult non-conference schedule in the country, that is what happens. Let’s hope Dixon and the other decision-makers get the message. Zeigler was supposed to step in and immediately become an impact player for the Panthers, but instead he struggled out of the gate, got arrested and suspended for a DUI just three weeks into the season, and then played the final eight games of the season in what looked like some semi-conscious state that made him about as much help to Pitt as if a fan walked out from the stands and took his place. Neither Woodall nor Patterson had the breakout season some had expected, and Panthers’ fans spent four seasons waiting for the once-ballyhooed Dante Taylor to break out, and it never happened.
It is a nerve-racking time to be a Pittsburgh basketball fan. The school responded to criticism of Dixon’s Tournament failures and overtures from USC by giving the coach a contract extension that runs through the 2022-23 season, so there is some stability. But the program is also moving to the ACC where it will enter what figures to be the best college basketball conference in the country. That said, Woodall and Taylor both graduate and Adams is gone for the NBA, but the team returns enough talent and depth to make some believe they can compete in the conference next season. Robinson should slide into the point guard role nicely, and good luck trying to figure out who will play on the wings. Zeigler, Patterson, J.J. Moore, and Cameron Wright look like the first four players in the rotation, but Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane is also expected to be eligible immediately and he averaged nearly 16 points per game for the Thundering Herd last season. The big question will be who joins senior Talib Zanna in the frontcourt. Incoming recruit Mike Young is the type of rugged forward that Pitt has had success with in the past and junior college transfer Joseph Uchebo will at least add depth and size, but it might be tough sledding next season for a team that prides itself on and thrives off its offensive rebounding.