Thoughts on where Pitt is at right now
By Chris Dokish
I've been away for awhile because of other writing projects, but if anybody is interested (or even if you're not), here are my thoughts on where Pitt is right now, between their Big East tournament loss and the start of the NCAA tournament.
1. The Big East tournament means nothing except for pride. Sorry but it's true. It is exciting, it's thrilling, and it's great for bragging rights, but Pitt is at the stage right now where their main goal should be Sweet 16s at the minimum, with a National Championship as a distinct possibility almost every year. That's what the great programs strive for on a yearly basis. A conference tournament championship, even one as legendary as the Big East tournament, is icing on the cake. But a conference tournament championship means little if followed by an early exit in the NCAA tournament, and an early exit from a conference tournament means nothing if followed by a trip to the Final Four. Anybody who talks of winning the Big East tournament being better than going to the Elite 8 should have their basketball watching privileges permanently revoked.
2. Likewise, a No. 1 seed is mostly just for pride. I have no idea if Pitt will be a No. 1 seed, and quite frankly I couldn't care less. It will either be a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed and either way they will need to win four games, and probably two against excellent teams, just to get to the Final Four. The difference is negligible. You don't hang a banner from the rafters over a No. 1 seed.
3. Almost instantaneously I received emails complaining that Jamie Dixon is a failure as a postseason coach. This is preposterous. I've never said this about any sports figure in any sport ever, but Pitt fans should thank God every day that they have Jamie Dixon leading their team. Not only is a great coach, he is an even better man, and I doubt Pitt would ever find a better representative for their university. EVER. He rarely has great talents, but often has great players. He makes them that way.
4. So why did Pitt lose to UConn? Normally Pitt loses because the other team has one great player and/or have more length and athleticism. UConn had more athleticism than Pitt but that wasn't the reason. They had, by far, the most talented player in the league, Kemba Walker, but really that wasn't the reason, even though Walker won the game at the end. The truth is, Ashton Gibbs was every bit as good as Walker and if he took the last shot instead of Walker, I have little doubt that Pitt would be advancing. No, Pitt lost because UConn hustled. The Panthers hustled and played with heart, but UConn matched them. It usually doesn't happen against Pitt but it did this time. In a game with two equal teams, both playing hard, the team with the ball last wins and that's what happened.
5. Speaking of Gibbs, while one game doesn't mean everything, and Brad Wanamaker also had a good game, I never bought into the notion that Wanamaker is Pitt's best player. In my opinion, Wanamaker is a good, solid player, a player who does everything good. But Gibbs does one thing great, and in my opinion doing that one thing great, while also playing good in other aspects, makes him clearly the best player on the team. Bottom line, with the game on the line, I would rather have Gibbs shooting than anybody else doing anything else on the team to win the game.
6. Sad to say it, but I still don't see anybody on the roster that looks like they will be in the NBA for more than a cup of copy. Gibbs' lack of quickness can be seen on the fast break or when driving, and in the NBA even a great shooter has to either be tall or athletic or they will never get their shot off. Wanamaker has an NBA body but I just don't think he is talented enough. He is a very good college player but the NBA is a huge step up. Gary McGhee is big and Gilbert Brown is long and athletic, but both are missing one thing that the NBA craves, and that's the ability to actually be an excellent basketball player. McGhee is somebody who should go down in Pitt history as somebody who is better than he ever should be. You will rarely, if ever, see another big man play hard every second of every play like McGhee has in his career. Brown, on the other hand, has to be one of the biggest disappointments in the history of the program. He's a decent college player but he should be a much better player than he is.
7. One thing I haven't understood all season is how both fans and the media talk about Pitt's great depth. I don't see it. Yeah, they may have good depth for the regular season, but not for the NCAA tournament. At most there are seven players that Pitt can count on in the NCAA tournament- Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee, Nasir Robinson, Dante Taylor, and Travon Woodall- and every team they meet beyond the first round will have seven decent players. Please tell me how much Lamar Patterson, Talib Zanna, J.J. Richardson, J.J. Moore, Cameron Wright, or Isaiah Epps are going to contribute in a brutally contested game deep into the tournament. Obviously three of them won't even play, and Patterson, Richardson, and Moore will only play in an emergency because they aren't ready either.
8. I said at the beginning of the season that Pitt will win around 30 games and go to the Sweet 16, with a small chance of the Elite 8. I still feel that way and for the same reasons. Pitt will probably lose for the same reasons they usually lose in the NCAA tournament- lack of a truly explosive player and lack of athleticism. In the Sweet 16 or the Elite 8 they will face a team that will have one or both of those, and the Panthers won't be able to overcome that. But, hey, I could always be wrong. At least the country is much weaker than usual and they could always have an easy road due to upsets. There have been a lot worse teams to make it to the Final Four.
9. For next season, the Panthers should be down a little, but maybe not too much. In my opinion, the three keys are Travon Woodall, Dante Taylor, and Khem Birch. I doubt that Woodall will ever be a great point guard, but if he could be a good point guard then he could team with All-American candidate Gibbs to form a really good starting backcourt. Taylor will take over for McGhee and it's about time that he takes the next step into a bonafide Big East starter. I expect Birch to play a lot, and maybe even star as a freshman. I'm not one for hyperbole, but this is not other so-called prize freshman that Pitt's fans overrated over the years. This kid is big time and I expect him to make a MAJOR impact right away. Birch could team with Taylor and Talib Zanna to form a very talented young rotation in the blocks. Move Nasir Robinson to the three to team with J.J. Moore, who I expect to improve a lot, and Lamar Patterson, and you may have something. Another guard will have to be found and that may have to be Cameron Wright since the future of Isaiah Epps is questionable and John Johnson is a prep candidate. True freshman Durand Johnson could be a sleeper here with his great shooting skill. Another sleeper freshman is Malcolm Gilbert. All he can do right now is block shots but it's the most coveted skill in basketball so he could see time just for that reason.
10. Bottom line, the future is bright. Extremely bright. The Panthers have yet to find the right mixture to get to the Final Four. When they had great role players, they didn't have the great players, and when they had great players in DeJuan Blair and Sam Young, they didn't have the great role players they usually do. If Blair had stayed all four seasons, they would have had the superstar with an excellent supporting cast, and the Final Four, if not a National Championship, would have been a real possibility this season. The only fault I can find with Dixon is that he recruits for the regular season rather than to win a National Championship. But thanks to Pat Skerry and Brandin Knight, that may be changing. Skerry brought Birch and continues to force Dixon to aim high. Dixon, to his credit, unearthed Steve Adams himself. Both have NBA lottery pick potential, a talent level that's needed to get to the Final Four. Now if both can just reach their high potential at Pitt at the right time.