By Chris Dokish
My inbox has been burning up lately, especially since Pitt's season ended a half of a second short of the Final Four, so I will do my best to answer the questions I've been getting.
Q- What the hell happened? I thought this was the year.
A- Just like I said before the season started, the Panthers had two excellent players in Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, and one very good player in Levance Fields. But after that there isn't a whole lot. At least as far as having an elite team goes. I stated back in November that in contrast to past Pitt teams that had a lot of good players, but no great players, this team had basically two and a half great players, but the normally good role players were suspect. At times it looked like Jermaine Dixon could reach a higher level and there was preseason hope for Gilbert Brown, but neither materialized.
Two and a half elite players are usually good enough if you want to go all the way, but that's assuming you have the much easier to attain good role players. But that wasn't the case with Pitt. Look at the Villanova game. If you picked the ten, or maybe even twelve, most talented players from the two teams combined, Young and Blair would be No. 1 and No. 2, in whichever order you want, but of the next eight to ten players, only Fields would be on that list. Villanova had more talent. It was only because Pitt had the two best players that they almost won. If they had even a little help, Pitt is still playing.
I say Fields is a half of an elite player because while he is an excellent floor leader and very clutch, he has serious weaknesses in his game that make him less than elite. Quite frankly, he isn't a great athlete, he isn't a great shooter, and he isn't a great defender. And against the top competition this season, Fields was mostly an atrocious shooter and he usually wasn't much better as a ball handler. That's not to denigrate what Fields has done in his career, but the truth is the truth. He is a very good player. He is not a great player.
But that still would have been fine if Pitt had their usual array of very good role players. But they never really developed this year. Ashton Gibbs was a pleasant surprise, and will have a nice career for the Panthers, but he was not an elite freshman and he really couldn't be counted on for too much because of his youth. Gary McGhee, unfortunately, adds absolutely nothing, and Tyrell Biggs doesn't add too much himself. Dixon disappeared when he was needed most, and while Wanamaker improved from last season, he is still not good enough to make a difference when the games get that big. And Brown did not progress as all this season. I know optimistic fans will defend the likes of Brown, Dixon, and Wanamaker, and let me be clear that I am only talking about how they fare against the elite. Pitt's role players will win a lot of games, but against the elite, they are out of their league. So, bottom line, the big three did what they could and if they had any help at all they could still be playing. But, sadly for Pitt fans, that help never came.
Q- Do you think Blair will be back next season?
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A- I don't have any inside info about this because there isn't any inside info. No decision has been made and nobody at Pitt knows what he's going to do. I don't even know if Blair has thought about it a lot yet. But if I had to guess, I would think he would leave. I don't see why he would stay, to be honest. He is considered a potential lottery pick now and I don't see why he would be a better prospect next season. It's not like Jamie Dixon is going to let him work on his outside shot while trying to win games for the school. And with his knees, he would be wise to get the money while he could. Then he has to realize that the Panthers will not be as good next year. You throw all of those things in the mix and it makes sense to me that he would leave. I hope I'm wrong, though. I've known him since he was 15 and I would miss watching him play college ball.
Q- The team doesn't look too good on paper next season. Did we miss our one chance for the Final Four?
A- Well, Pitt may have missed their one and only chance to be that close. It's naive to think that they can easily get there again. There are better programs out there that have had a hard time getting there, so there is a chance that Pitt may not be back there. I would think with Dixon at the helm, though, Pitt will have a chance again. But I don't think it will be for a few years, at least.
If Blair stays, that will make Dante Taylor better, and the rest of the team, along with the great coaching, should lead to another successful season. Not as good as this season, but a top 20 team, for sure. If Blair leaves, though, on paper, it easily looks like Pitt's weakest team since they became a power nearly a decade ago. Like I previously stated, Pitt had two and a half excellent players this season. If Blair leaves, they have zero. I don't care how good of a coach Dixon is, you can't do much with no excellent players. Taylor has great potential and, yes, he could be somebody who could get 15 ppg and 8 rpg as a freshman. But most big men, no matter how talented, are not great as freshmen, especially when they are by far the most talented player on the team, which he would be if Blair leaves. He is not Kevin Durant or Michael Beasley.
If Blair stays, he is the go to guy, Taylor can have less pressure on him, then the rest of the team can hopefully make some strides as role players. But without Blair, the only excellent talent on the team is a freshman. After that, the talent level drops off sharply. Travon Woodall is much more athletic and much better defensively than Fields, and he will probably a better scorer. Physically he is light years ahead of Fields on Levance's best day. But he will need to run the team and that's not easy, even though Fields made it look that way. Gibbs was a pleasant surprise and he should be the least of Dixon's worry. Jermaine Dixon needs to get his game back and Wanamaker and Brown need to progress.
To cut to the chase, I think if Blair leaves, Pitt may be seventh or eight in the preseason conference rankings and it could be hard for Pitt to make the NCAA tournament. There simply aren't any excellent players outside of Blair, and maybe Taylor, but Taylor needs Blair. I know the fans point to the development of past players like Young and have high hopes for players like Brown and Wanamaker, but I don't see it. Young was a top 50 prospect and Aaron Gray was 7'0" tall. Wanamaker and Brown have the potential to be good players, but all-star caliber is a stretch. With stars around them, they could develop into very good role players. But if they are asked to be among the stars, then Pitt may be in trouble for the next year or two.
Q- How is the recruiting coming along? Looks like we could use a serious influx of talent.
A- Well, you're right. The Panthers always have one or two excellent players, and this year with two and a half excellent players, they came within a half of a second from the Final Four. But if Blair leaves, they suddenly have zero. Taylor may become one as a sophomore (please stop the stupid one and done garbage with him, it's not going to happen), and Epps may be one, but he's not coming for two years. In three years, Pitt could have Taylor as a junior and Epps as a sophomore, and they may be ready for excellence again. But it certainly looks like they will lack that super talent until then, if Blair leaves. Pitt will still win a good amount of games, though, I'm sure, because Dixon is too good of a coach.
Q- Any word on Kyryl, Payne, or Barton? What's the chances?
A- I would guess maybe 50% on Kyryl, under 50% on Payne at this time, and too early on Barton.
Q- Is Pitt interested in Stephen Curry's brother, Seth? Seems like a perfect fit.
A- I think it would be a perfect fit, too, and he is very much in demand. He could play for anybody in the country. But Pitt isn't interested for some reason.
----update----Seth Curry is transerring to Duke
Q- Any chance that Jamie Dixon or Tom Herrion will be gone before next season?
A- Of course there's a chance. Herrion is from MA and Boston U. would appear to be interested. If I were him, I would wait for something better, though. As for Dixon, I don't think Kentucky will even look him and I doubt Arizona could afford him. He used to be ripe for the picking, but he isn't as cheap as he used to be.
Q- Will Gary McGhee be back next season?
A- I don't know. I hope not, for his sake. He is clearly over matched at this level and I hope Pitt can convince him that he would be more comfortable as a level that suits his talent. And I seriously doubt that he would see the floor if he stayed.
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