ACC Team Preview: Pittsburgh PanthersPosted by Brad Jenkins on October 22nd, 2013
Of the three new members in the ACC for the 2013-14 season, the Pitt Panthers are probably generating the least amount of excitement. Of course that’s understandable considering the deserved elite reputation of Syracuse, and the national brand name of Notre Dame. But make no mistake, Coach Jamie Dixon brings one of the top programs in the country to the ACC this year. In fact, during his 10 year tenure as head coach, Pitt has averaged 26 wins per season.
2012-13 was a bounceback season for the Panthers after missing the NCAA Tournament the year before (for the first time under Dixon). It was an interesting year in which Pitt finished 24-9 overall and 12-6 in the Big East. The computers loved the Panthers, as they finished #11 in both Ken Pomeroy’s and Jeff Sagarin’s popular ratings systems. But the NCAA Tournament selection committee saw things differently, giving Pitt a #8 seed, no doubt because of a non-conference schedule that rated #269 in the RPI. Even though losing in the first round to Wichita State looked better when the Shockers made the Final Four, that 73-55 beating ended the Panthers’ season on a downer. Soon after the season’s end, Pitt’s roster suffered an unusual bout of heavy attrition. In addition to losing seniors Tray Woodall and Dante Taylor, talented seven-footer Steven Adams left after one season for the NBA, and two others, juniors J.J. Moore and Trey Zeigler, decided to transfer out of the program. Dixon and his staff deserve credit for restocking the roster with some late additions and transfers of their own.Newcomers
With the losses of Adams, Taylor and Moore, Pitt needed to replenish the frontcourt immediately and they did just that, pulling in two freshman forwards and two transfer post players. Freshman Michael Young, a 6’8″, 245 lb. forward from powerhouse St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, New Jersey, is the highest regarded newcomer and may start right away. Jamel Artis, a 6″7″ freshman, fits the mold of past versatile Pitt forwards. The hope is that depth in the post will be provided the transfers. The 6’9″ Derrick Randall was a late roster addition, getting an NCAA waiver to play right away after leaving Rutgers, and he is joined by JuCo transfer 6’10″ Joseph Uchebo. However, both missed the October 18 Blue-Gold scrimmage with knee problems. Two new Panthers hope to get into the perimeter rotation. Josh Newkirk, a 6’1″ combo guard, will bring needed quickness to the backcourt, and 6’6″ Chris Jones learned the system last year as a redshirt.
Pitt will mold its team around three solid returning starters. Fifth year seniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna have made steady progress over their careers and represent a program trend. Jamie Dixon’s squad has operated much like a college football team, making use of a redshirt system that allow the players to develop before being forced into key roles. This allows the Panthers’ program to compete at the highest level on the court even though it rarely recruits at the highest level. Returning point guard James Robinson had a solid freshman year and gained valuable experience playing for USA Basketball over the summer, helping the Under-19 Team win gold. Junior Cameron Wright averaged 15 minutes per game last year and is known as an athletic defender.
Potential Breakout Player
Sophomore Durand Johnson only averaged 12 minutes per game last season, but he may be ready for a larger role. He’s another product of the Pitt redshirt system, so this will be his third year in the program. Johnson is known as a shooter, hitting 38% on his 66 three-point attempts last season, and with the loss of Woodall there is an obvious need there. However, he also needs to improve his ball-handling for the coaching staff to feel comfortable with giving him enough minutes to become a real breakout player.
Outside of a December 17 Jimmy V Classic game against Cincinnati, there’s not much to get excited about with this non-conference schedule. Pitt hosts Penn State in its first ACC/Big Ten Challenge game and the Legends Classic field is not very stellar. In the ACC, Pitt has a good draw in terms of which teams it will have to play twice (Syracuse, Maryland, N.C. State, and Clemson) but they do have another issue. As Kevin Gorman points out in the ACC Sports Journal 2013-14 Winter Edition, “It won’t be easy, as the Panthers have a schedule that calls for several short turnarounds against quality opponents.” There are three instances in which Pitt only has a single day off between conference games.
One thing we can expect is that the ACC will see a deliberate Pitt team. Last season Pitt was the slowest playing major conference team at 60.4 possessions per game. That means they were slower than even notable tempo killers Wisconsin and Virginia. But unlike those slow teams who avoid going after offensive rebounds in order to get back and set the defense, Pitt attacks the offensive glass with impunity. And it’s not just last year’s national rank of #4 in that category that stands out, but five top 12 finishes in the last six years. The ACC media tabbed Pitt for a sixth place finish at the recent ACC Operation Basketball, and that seems about right with this group. The overall talent level may not be in the upper echelon, but Pitt does have some veteran leadership and newcomers with potential. Much may depend on getting the big transfers healthy and replacing the scoring of Woodall. Another positive is that Pitt has balance among its top three returnees: in the post with Zanna, on the wing with Patterson, and at the point with Robinson. Barring injuries, they don’t have a glaring weakness in any one area and that should help the Panthers have a successful first season in the ACC.