By Chris Dokish
For the fourth time in Jamie Dixon's seven years as Pitt coach, the Panthers did not make it to the Sweet 16. For almost every other program in the country, a coach who goes seven for seven in getting into the tournament, with an Elite 8 and two Sweet 16s, would have their fans dancing in the streets. And just a decade ago, the same could be said for Pitt fans. But because of Jamie Dixon's ridiculously successful regular seasons, his relative lack of similar success in the postseason has many Pitt fans frustrated. Such is life in the highly competitive Big East.
Compare Dixon's seven seasons with the last seven seasons of Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, UConn's Jim Calhoun, and Louisville's Rick Pitino, Big East coaches who have won a National Championship (or two) before. In the seven seasons in question, Boeheim made two Sweet 16s, had two first round losses, and two NIT appearances. Pitino went to one NIT,lost in the first round twice, and the second round once. The difference is, he also has two Elite 8 appearances and a Final Four. For Calhoun, he didn't make the tournament twice, and lost both in the first and second round once. The difference is, the other three times were an Elite 8, a Final Four, and a National Championship. Even Villanova's Jay Wright, who has never won a National Championship, has had a better seven season stretch in the postseason. Wright has an NIT appearance, a first round loss, a second round loss, two Sweet 16s, an Elite 8, and a Final Four. Only Boeheim has not had a better run, but the Orange are looking like a Final Four team, at least, this season.
With the knowledge that the Panthers have the best Big East record in the conference in that time, it doesn't take a genius to see that this disconnect between regular season success and a perceived lack of postseason success would have people scratching their heads.
Truthfully, my theory that Pitt's lack of postseason success is because of a lack of great talent only partially makes sense. That explains losses to UCLA, Oklahoma State, and maybe Michigan State. It doesn't explain losses to Pacific and Bradley, who had less talent, and Villanova and Xavier, who had equal talent. Bottom line, Pitt is clearly underachieving in the postseason. So the question then becomes, can that disconnect change, and if so, when?
I know many fans are highly optimistic for next season at the moment because, quite frankly, it's a better alternative than to think the same thing will happen next season. However, I do see the same thing happening next season, but maybe not beyond that.
My prediction for next year's team is that they will be slightly more accomplished, though any talk of them being a power, or a Final Four contender, seems foolish. And before the optimists go ballistic, a slightly more accomplished team next year means something like 27 or 28 wins and a Sweet 16. Not too shabby, to say the least.
The problem is that the players with the highest ceilings will still not be ready yet, and the upperclassmen simply don't have high ceilings. Ashton Gibbs, a very good player, averaged 15.7 ppg by being mostly a jump shooter. It's not realistic that he will score much more than that. The same could be said for Brad Wanamaker, a good player who can score some, is a good rebounder, and a nice assist man. But he also has limitations that will prevent him from being a star. Is he going to suddenly score 16 ppg next season? Probably not, but even if he does, that doesn't make him an elite player who can carry the team on his back to greatness. Gilbert Brown? I think it's obvious that, while a good player, he also is not going to be that elite all-star caliber player. As for Gary McGhee, what you see is clearly what you get, whether you like it or not.
Players like Travon Woodall and Dante Taylor should improve, but they aren't the types to turn into stars next year either. Neither may even start. Redshirts Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna are going to be good, and should provide help, but stardom isn't in the cards for them next year either. The freshman are also going to be excellent, but don't expect it to happen as freshmen. There were nine freshman in the Big East this year that were consensus Top 50 prospects. Only one, Lance Stephenson, averaged in double figures, and he was a top 10 prospect that still had a lot of faults. Isaiah Epps, Cameron Wright, and J.J. Moore, if he's even eligible, will provide much needed athleticism and talent, but probably not in huge measures. Especially since they will all have veterans ahead of them.
In summary, Dixon has underachieved in the postseason, but an Elite 8 and two Sweet 16s in seven years is not bad for underachieving. Any fans who look at the totality of Dixon's postseason relative lack of success could understandably question him at that time of the year. But, this season was different. Should Pitt have beat Xavier? Perhaps. But on the other hand, I had sportswriters email me from all over the country when I picked Pitt to win 20 games, because they thought I was insane. Around the country, people look at this team and can't understand how they won as many as they did. Even the Big East coaches didn't see enough to pick them above ninth in the preseason poll. They had one all-conference player, no stars, no future NBA players, nobody on the All-Rookie Team, and just one top 50 prospect, and he was mostly a non-factor as a freshman. Yet Dixon, his staff, and these hardworking players showed amazing resiliency and toughness. This team scored 17 points against New Hampshire at one point, then came within one shot of going to the Sweet 16. New Hampshire!!
This program has a lot of excellent supporting parts. The problem is, there was no star. With DeJuan Blair on this team, suddenly Gibbs gets open, Wanamaker doesn't have to waste energy rebounding over his head, McGhee comes off the bench, etc. But without that star player, everybody was forced to play over their head. Much to their everlasting credit, they did do more than they should have been asked to for much of the season. But you can only stretch so much before you break.
The same will probably happen next season, though as many as five new players enter the mix. And it's those five that will be the center of this team in two years. If Moore is eligible next season, he has the ability to be a star as a sophomore. Epps and Wright will at least be good as sophs, and maybe even better. Gibbs and Robinson will be seniors, Richardson, Taylor, Woodall, Patterson, and Zanna will be juniors, and John Johnson will arrive as a freshman, along with one or two others yet to be named.
Bottom line, this year was a rebuilding year and almost ended in the Sweet 16. Next year should be better and a Sweet 16 is a good possibility. Not bad for a team with no stars. The good news is, the stars may be on the way. What then? Will Dixon finally break through with more talent throughout the roster than he's ever had? Well, if he doesn't two, three, four years down the road, then he may never. But at least we will know. Because for the first time, both the talent and depth will be there.