Analysis after the first five games
By Chris Dokish
To quote former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green, "they are who we thought they were". After five games, the Panthers stand 4-1 beating four low-major teams and losing to No.3 Texas. None of the five results were a surprise, though many of the individual performances were. Let's take a look at those first and see how each player was perceived entering the season, how they played in the first five games, and how they project this season and beyond.
Ashton Gibbs- My scouting report in the preseason was that Gibbs was best as a great shooting sixth man off the bench because he was not exceptional at anything but shooting with his feet set. After five games I see no difference. Gibbs will not be a sixth man this season, but only because the lack of offensive talent around him prevents him from ever leaving the floor for long.
Not surprisingly, Gibbs averaged 17.0 ppg against the four inferior opponents and had little trouble getting open to score. However, just as unsurprising is how difficult it was for him to get loose against a high-major team like Texas. The result was a 2 for 10 shooting night.
Unfortunately for Gibbs, the Big East has more teams closer to Texas than the inferior opponents that they began the season with, so he will probably continue to have trouble consistently getting open shots once the Big East season starts. That's not to say that Gibbs is ineffective because he is not. In the right circumstance, he could excel despite his lack of elite athleticism. Past Panthers players like Ronald Ramon, who had a nice career, and Jason Matthews, who ended his career with 1,840 points, are similar. Like Gibbs, neither were elite athletes at the two. The difference is that neither Ramon nor Matthews had to be the main offensive threat on the team.
Because Gibbs has that hindrance, he may struggle in games this season, but he will have his big games, too. He's too good of a shooter not to. He should be a lot better in two years when he won't be asked to shoulder most of the offensive load.
Travon Woodall- In the preseason, I think I may have been the only writer, locally or nationally, who said that Woodall would probably be the point guard. Woodall did grab the reigns and has been light years ahead of where many thought he would be. That's not too hard since many thought he was going to be a bust, and leave the program either voluntarily or involuntarily.
But Woodall still does have a long way to go. He is averaging a solid 9.8 ppg and an excellent 6.6 apg. Those numbers are "Fields-esque", if you will. He has shown with his quickness and his moxie that he is far from a bust, and that he will be a good player for four years. On the other hand, he has been a little sloppy with the ball and has been out of control too often. But that is something that comes with a young freshman point guard. A little more concerning is his 33.3% shooting from the field and 26.1% from three. His lack of a consistent outside shot hurts both Gibbs and an already undermanned front line because opponents do not have to account for him.
Bottom line, Woodall has made huge strides, but he still has a long way to go if he wants to hold off incoming recruit Isaiah Epps, who many believe has the ability to perhaps someday play in the NBA. As for the immediate future, improving his outside shot is a must.
Brad Wanamaker- Prior to the season, I saw Wanamaker as a player with more of a physical game then a mental game, and unfortunately nothing in the first five games makes me think otherwise. He is a big, strong 6'4" player with physical toughness and athleticism. A player with his physical ability should be better than he has been so far. That may be harsh for a junior who is averaging 10.6 ppg and 4.6 rpg, but his lack of focus is preventing him from being better.
Too often Wanamaker uses his body for evil instead of good, and he still hasn't lost his "bull in a china shop" style. That style has it's benefits at times, and Wanamaker can make elite plays from time to time because of it. But just as often, if not more, he plays out of control, often looking like he is playing in the local gym with his friends instead of focusing his physical traits into a more concentrated game. His lack of focus and mental toughness was apparent in the Elite 8 match up with Villanova, when I had more than one basketball writer who attended tell me that the look in Wanamaker's eyes in the pregame shoot around was all they had to see to know that he was not going to have a good game. They were right. He fouled out with 5 points.
Ultimately, that's Wanamaker's biggest problem. He doesn't understand that playing hard without focus is just chaos. His second biggest problem is that he is shooting 1 for 9 from three and 55.2% from the line.
Gary McGhee- In the preseason, I saw McGhee as a borderline high-major player and said I would admit I was wrong if he ever turned into a player. Now I admit that I was wrong. Last season McGhee could not even catch a pass let alone make any nice plays. His hands were awful, he was clueless as to what to do, and he became a fouling machine with his chicken with his head cut off defense that made Wanamaker look like a cream puff.
McGhee still will never be an excellent player. He just isn't good enough at any facet of the game. But he does have some good things going for him. He has great size, he is sneakily athletic for that size, he plays hard (and now focused), and most of all, he plays within himself. His stamina for such a big man is also amazing and he plays hard and runs the floor with all out gusto the entire time he is on the floor. He doesn't try to be an All-American and just takes what comes to him. The result is that he is scoring at an 8.2 ppg pace to go with 7.0 rpg. And to show just how much he has been playing within himself, he has made 88.9% of his FGs, few more than two feet from the basket, and a huge number of them dunks.
Bottom line, I still had my doubts of how well McGhee could do against a major opponent, but his 11 point and 10 rebound performance against Texas' huge front line is all you need top know about whether or not the first four games were a fluke. It's no secret that if the Panthers landed a big man in the off season, which they tried to do, McGhee probably would not be on the roster this season. Well, McGhee had the last laugh and it couldn't have happened to a better guy. He quickly went from goat to fan favorite, and he deserves every bit of it.
Nasir Robinson- In the off season, I saw Robinson as a tweener, not big enough for the four and not a good enough shooter for the three. I also said that the Panthers staff was adamant that it would not be a good sign if Robinson was starting at the four, and he would only do so if there was no other choice.
Well, clearly there was no other choice because Robinson has started at the four all season. Not surprisingly he has been a mixed bag. His toughness and high energy style has led him to 9.2 ppg and he has had a 10 rebound game. On the other hand, it is obvious that he is out of position and is just too small to be a four, especially against big high-major teams. In fact, against the two biggest teams opponents so far, Robinson has had a grand total of 5 rebounds and has only been to the line twice, missing both.
Bottom line, Robinson is playing out of position and is way too small for the position (both in height and mass), so it's hard to criticize him. He is the kind of player you need on your team, but he's best coming off the bench. The lack of a true four has hurt the Panthers immensely this season and there are no signs that it will get much better this season. Unfortunately for Robinson, he is the one that will have to suffer for it.
Dante Taylor- In the preseason I saw Taylor as a potential 10 points and 7 rebounds a game player who flashed brilliance at times and showed great promise. I also did not share the stance of many fans that because Taylor was a McDonald's All-American he would be an immediate star and show that he would not be at Pitt for long.
It is apparent to many now what I was saying before was correct- DeJuan Blair was special so don't expect the same from other top prospects. Taylor's stats on the season are not bad thus far with 5.6 ppg and 5.6 rpg, but he could, and should, do better. The fact that against the two biggest opponents, Wichita State and Texas, Taylor had a total of 4 points and 3 rebounds, does not bode well.
Taylor is averaging just 16.4 minutes a game, seventh on a team that desperately needs a low post player with his talent. But Taylor has not made it easier for Jamie Dixon to put him in more. His defense has been lax and has just four blocks on the season, all in one game. He is also shooting 50% from the line and has just one assist.
Taylor is the cornerstone of the future of this program. Too much may have been expected from him, and he does flash every now and then, but he needs to get better fast for the Panthers to have a fighting chance this season.
Chase Adams- In the preseason, I saw Adams as a quick, little experienced guard with great hands on defense and an excellent three point shooter. Now I think Adams is underachieving and it seems mostly it's because he is being too hesitant. He may be deferring to others because he is new to the program and he doesn't want to cause friction, but he is only doing a disservice to his teammates if he doesn't play as well as he can.
Adams is averaging 4 ppg while shooting 40% from three and 46.7% from the field overall, a respectable number for a guard. He also has displayed his quick hands with five steals in five games, but he could do even better in that department.
Adams is fourth in minutes and it's clear that the staff wants him on the floor when the game is tight because they trust his experience and calm. But he needs to assert himself and use his sweet stroke and quick hands to contribute more.
Lamar Patterson- In the preseason, I said that Patterson had the potential to be a lights out shooter and has a solid all-around game. I also said that he would make Pitt fans forget about Darnell Dodson.
Whether or not I will be right about Dodson (who has been benched at Kentucky), time will tell, but Patterson has shown early that he is going to be a good four year player for the Panthers.
Like Robinson, he has sometimes been forced to play the four, but Patterson has shown brightly in limited action thus far. Despite playing just 12 minutes a game, Patterson is averaging 4 ppg and has made 5 out of 10 threes. He has also shown good below the rim athleticism, toughness, and brains.
Patterson looks to be a player who will contribute nicely in the next four seasons, but he will have to continue to improve because perimeter players with an even better pedigree are on the way.
Dwight Miller- In the preseason, I picked him to start at the four if only because somebody had to. It was imperative that he surprised and won the spot because there was no acceptable Plan B. Unfortunately, Miller is averaging only 5.8 minutes a game and has yet to score. Even worse, he played just 2 minutes against Wichita State and did not play at all against Texas.
Bottom line, Miller's progression was badly needed this season and it simply did not happen. That can not bode well for his future at a program that may go over the scholarship limit next season.
J.J. Richardson- In the preseason, I saw him as a high energy, tough low post player who could get some minutes at the four and five if he showed he could make the transition to this level. Well, he clearly hasn't shown that he could play at this level yet, and he hasn't played in two of the five games, but against Texas he did play 10 minutes and came up with 2 points and 2 rebounds (along with 3 fouls).
Time will tell with Richardson. Talib Zanna will almost assuredly be redshirted and it seems unlikely the Panthers would also redshirt Richardson. But that doesn't mean he is safe in the future, necessarily. If the Panthers do go two over the scholarship limit and have to jettison two players from the program, it would be easier to do with a player who had a chance and didn't show that he has progressed over the season- so he better progress.
Talib Zanna- In the preseason I saw him as a raw prospect who would likely redshirt. The fact that he has played in only one game shows that a redshirt is practically guaranteed now. He must make big strides next season, however, as the front court still doesn't look to be a strength next season unless Taylor makes major improvement.
The Team- Before the season, I predicted the Panthers to be 20-11, going into the Big East tournament. After seeing the Panthers play five games, I see pretty much what I expected. The talent, while good, is simply not exceptional and it's doubtful that there is an all-star caliber player on the team this season. I know a lot of Pitt fans don't want to believe the team doesn't have excellent talent this season, and of course many expect the best case scenario for each player. That's what fans do and that's why it's a great thing to be. But this team is filled with role players, a least now. Over the years that has been Pitt's specialty, but you can only be a successful role player if you support a star. This team has no such thing. Every player has a major flaw, be it physical, mental, or youth.
Jamie Dixon had a plan that he will always have a star so that the rest of his satellites can orbit around. However, the plan showed a major flaw when DeJuan Blair left early. The Panthers staff never expected Blair's monster sophomore season would propel him to the NBA. With Blair, this team could, and probably would, be a top 25 team because suddenly all of the role players can play their roles instead of having to be something more. He was that great. But without him, major weaknesses become apparent. Dixon has landed tough, hard nosed players during his stint. In fact, they made up a large majority of the players he landed. But he never landed enough star players. He usually had one true star. When he had two last season he came within a second of going to the Final Four. That's how much star players are needed. But now Dixon is paying for recruiting at a lesser pace than other successful programs, especially in the front court where McGhee, Miller, Zanna, and Richardson were all projects.
In other elite programs, a superstar recruit was landed, left early, and was replaced by another superstar recruit. The result was feast or famine, or least lesser feast. When their young stars performed well, they had a very strong season. But sometimes the attrition led to a down year. Simply put, the high level couldn't always be sustained because there was just too much to replace that season. Now Dixon knows how they feel. He lost a superstar and there just wasn't enough to replace it. The veterans don't have all-star ability and the younger players are just too raw.
In the first five games, the team only played two players, Wanamaker and Gibbs, that played any significant minutes last season. Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown are scheduled to return, but they aren't miracle workers. Like the rest of the team, neither are all-stars, not to mention that neither will be in playing shape for awhile. Brown hasn't even practiced with most of the players on the team. To think he will make a major difference this season may be naive, especially since his career has been a disappointment thus far.
To think that a team with such problems could win 20 games is foolish. Nationally, and in the Big East, nobody expects much from Pitt this season, and truthfully, on paper, this team shouldn't even be in the top half of the league.
But there is more than just talent and experience. Pitt also had other things in their bag. They have a great coach who has a great staff. They have toughness. They have brains. They have determination. These things don't slump. Yes, they have inferior and young talent this year, but because of their strengths, the intangibles that don't show up on paper, this team will always be poised to win any game that the opponent is not playing their best, and that's bound to happen.
The out of conference schedule is not particularly difficult this season, but unfortunately after an opener at home against Depaul, the conference schedule gets brutal with the next six games against Syracuse, Cincinnati, UConn, and Seton Hall on the road, and Louisville and Georgetown at home. The Panthers may be underdog in all and it's not crazy to think that they could start the Big East season at 1-6. But this team will not give up because Dixon won't let it happen and the players themselves wont let it happen. And because they are Pitt, and because I can't imagine it otherwise, I still say that Pitt enters the conference tournament at 20-11.
If so, then what Dixon and his staff would have accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. To end the season in this brutal league with 20 wins, with less than great talent, is nearly unfathomable. But that's how good Dixon is and that's how many intangibles he has instilled in every player that comes through the program.
It would be a pretty successful season for a down year and it may be the last one the program has for awhile. The future holds many more years with the likes of Dante Taylor, Travon Woodall, Lamar Patterson, Ashton Gibbs, Nasir Robinson, Isaiah Epps, Cameron Wright, J.J. Moore, and John Johnson. The talent is better and deeper for the future, and the program may not find themselves in this position again. So memo to the Big East: you better get Pitt now, because this may be your last chance.