Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What it takes to get the Final Four

By Chris Dokish

For the past few seasons, the Panthers have been one of the most winning teams in the country, and with that comes fans, and sometimes even media, thinking that this could be the year that a Final Four will happen- and maybe even a National Championship. As I'm about to show, getting to the Final Four at Pitt's talent level over Jamie Dixon's eight seasons has been a long shot, and as far as a National Championship, the Panthers are not even in the same universe.

First let's look at what it takes to win it all. Since this season has not concluded yet, we will take the champions for the first seven seasons of Dixon's head coaching career.

In 2004, the champions were the UConn Huskies. Pitt was equal in their regular season that year thanks to their normal group of veteran hard workers. Pitt lost to UConn in Storrs, then beat them at Pitt, then lost the rubber match in the Big East tournament in a close one. But as is often the case, pure talent is what the NCAA tournament is about. And yes, I know the desperate argument that a lot of talented teams have not make the Final Four. All I can say to that is, there are most than four teams yearly that have NBA talent, and some of them underachieve and don't make the Final Four. Bottom line, not all teams with NBA talent win the championship, but every team that wins the championship has NBA talent.

But back to UConn who that season featured a team that played seven future drafted players, including six first rounders and four lottery picks in Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villenueva, and Hilton Armstrong. By comparison, the only player from that Pitt squad that played significant minutes that season who eventually got drafted was future second round pick Chris Taft.

The 2005 champion, North Carolina, also featured four lottery picks in Sean May, Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, and Rashad McCants.

In 2006 and 2007, the champion was Florida who featured three future lottery picks in Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, and Al Horford, plus future second round pick Taurean Green.

In 2008, the Kansas Jayhawks captured the title behind a team that featured six future NBA drafted players, including lottery picks Brandon Rush and Cole Aldrich.

In 2009, it was North Carolina's turn and they featured six future NBA draft picks, including two lottery picks in Tyler Hansbrough and Ed Davis.

Last year's champion, Duke, is the only winner in the seven years that did not feature a lottery pick, but still had future draftees Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, and Mason Plumleee, not to mention Second Team All-American Jon Scheyer.

I added up all of this up to see just how much ridiculous talent the seven national champions had. And the numbers are staggering. The seven champions combined for 18 lottery picks, 26 first rounders, and 34 drafted players overall.

That means the average national championship team over the last seven years has 2 or 3 lottery picks, 4 first rounders, and five draft picks. By comparison, over that same time period, Pitt has had zero lottery picks, zero first rounders, and four drafted players total. Now that is an enormous difference.

Why did Pitt lose to the likes of Kent State, Pacific, and Bradley? Because the talent level between Pitt and those programs are not very different. I know very few Pitt fans who will admit that but it's true. In major college basketball, there is elite talent, then everybody else. If you don't have elite talent then you are everybody else. Pitt wins so many games, not because of talent, but because of a consistent focus in the regular season to hustle and toughness. They will themselves to wins over sometimes much more talented teams. Both Dixon and his players deserve enormous credit for that. But in the tournament, when talent reigns, it comes down to a bounce here or a bounce there, and in those situations the bounces haven't gone Pitt's way.

The teams that have lost in the championship game aren't exactly bums either. The average loser has had either none or one lottery pick, one or two first rounders, and three players drafted. Not as dramatic, but still huge.

Overall, including this year since we do know who the four participants are, the average Final Four team has 1-2 lottery picks, 2 first rounders, and 3-4 drafted players.

Look at the 32 teams that made the Final Four in Dixon's eight years and you will see there is a chance for Pitt to get there at their current talent level, but not much of one.

In 2004, the national semifinal losers still had more talent than Pitt ever had. We touched on Oklahoma State previously, but the other loser, Duke, had three future lottery picks. The national champion loser was Georgia Tech, then considered a huge long shot to make the finals, though they still had future No. 1 pick Jarrett Jack. So as you can even the long shot had the talent level Pitt doesn't.

in 2005, the national semifinal losers, Michigan State and Louisville, combined for three first round picks.

In 2006, George Mason was at the time, a once in a lifetime Cinderella, had no future picks, while LSU had two picks, including lottery pick Tyrus Thomas.

In 2007, UCLA featured four draft picks, including three first rounders and a lottery pick. Georgetown featured three draft picks, including lottery pick Jeff Green.

In 2008, North Carolina had four draft picks, including three first rounders and one lottery pick. UCLA had four drafted players, including three first rounders and two lottery picks.

In 2009, Villanova only had second round pick Dante Cunningham, while UConn had four draft picks and two lottery picks.

In 2010, Michigan State had no players drafted yet, though Draymond Green has a chance this year, and West Virginia had two second rounders. The loser of the championship game, Butler, could not be considered a Cinderella, or a fluke, because they had lottery pick Gordon Hayward, as well as future NBA draft pick Shelvin Mack.

All of this is a very detailed way of showing that, including this season, the Panthers had less elite talent than 25 of the 32 teams in the Final Four. And even that number may be too low since that list includes two Michigan State teams that were loaded with top 50 high school prospects. Butler, this year, at least has an experienced team that was in the championship game last season so that somewhat explains their amazing two year run. Villanova, the year they beat Pitt on a Scottie Reynolds last second shot, and West Virginia last year, are the two instances where Pitt can look to as a reason for optimism. The only two truly out of the blue Cinderella teams amongst the 32 are George Mason in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth this season.

So what does this all mean for Pitt's chances of going to the Final Four? As of now, they're not great. As I've shown, the talent level is not even close in most years to get there. The three best players on this year's team were Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker, and Gilbert Brown, three players who have an outside chance of getting drafted, and very little chance of making an NBA team. Gibbs was the best player on the team this season and he would be a bench player on an average national championship team.

Next year's returning roster also looks light on future NBA draft picks. Many Pitt fans are high on Talib Zanna and J.J. Moore but I can assure you that there are no NBA scouting departments who are eager to watch them right now. Moore, who you would think is a future lottery pick by some Pitt fans, was not even a consensus top 100 recruit.

That doesn't mean that Zanna or Moore won't be good. I think they will be. But there's a difference between being good and being Final Four good.

The best hope for Pitt to make a Final Four is in the future arrival of Khem Birch and Steven Adams. Both have the potential to be future first round or even lottery pick players. Of course that is a somewhat silly statement considering neither has played a second of college basketball, but just like I'm sure the NBA scouts aren't interested in Zanna and Moore yet, I know for a fact that they already are well aware of Birch and Adams.

In the best case scenario, both will stay long enough to finally take Pitt to where they want to go. Dixon gets criticized for not playing freshman enough but he's only had two- DeJuan Blair and Chris Taft- who were good enough to play as freshman. Birch and Adams must be good immediately so that Dixon plays them.

If your elite talent plays a lot in their freshman year then your chances of making the Final Four goes up. This sounds like the opposite of what most basketball experts say because having seniors is supposed to be so good for your program. But at the highest level, talent trumps experience routinely and talent rarely stays long enough to be seniors. Of the last 28 teams to make the Final Four, there have been 38 who are lottery picks, or like UConn's Jeremy Lamb, project to be a lottery pick, and the class that is most represented is freshman with 15. By comparison, only one is a senior.

So for Pitt to get to the Final Four, they could have things fall for them the right like they did for Villanova and West Virginia recently, or they could have Birch and Adams live up their potential immediately and at the same time. And unlike when Blair and Sam Young were at their peak simultaneously, the supporting cast must be strong. Or they could add another elite talent like Amile Jefferson, who the Panthers are currently recruiting heavily.

But this is the best case scenario. Birch and Adams, as well as good prospect John Johnson, are not even guaranteed to make it to Pitt because of academics, though Johnson probably will eventually, even if it takes an extra year. But Birch and Adams have pro talent and any delay in getting to Pitt may make them skip college ball completely. Of course that's the doomsday scenario, but if this run on talent falls through then Pitt will be dealt a devastating blow as far as making it to the Final Four.

But no matter how you look at it, it is very difficult for Pitt to get there, and despite many who say it's a matter of time, that's not necessarily the case. Examples cited, like Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun, are flawed logic because both had elite talent when they broke though. Pitt has still not accumulated that kind of talent and unless they do, they will just have to hope they catch lighting in a bottle.


At 6:08 PM, Blogger Kevin said...


It is pieces just like this, where you show the FACTS, to continue to argue a theme that you have been ALL OVER for a long period of time. WELL DONE, again.

As you surely have seen, just recently much more of the major press has chimed in too with their thoughts on "elite talent". WELL DONE.

IMO :: As for Pitt's best attribute in terms of being competitive, it must be that Pitt is far from a "one and done" school with players who generally stay 3-4 years, so while Pitt may lack "elite talent" at least it can have experienced talent.

I would argue that sometimes that experience can beat the young elite, so here is hoping the Panthers get a little lucky someday by utilizing their experience over their likely opponents' raw talent and get to the Final Four, where anything can then happen ...

THANK DOKE for being the best out there ...

At 10:24 PM, Blogger Pitt said...


What concerns me most about this is that Birch, Adams and Johnson are all on the bubble academically. I've heard Johnson's name a few times but this is the first time I've heard Birch. I've had a gut feeling that Adams may not because of his lack of a real formal education...but I still have my fingers crossed.

Is this a real concern or were you just tossing out a worst case scenario?

Second, I still think Taylor may surprise people but, overall, you are probably right. I like to fool myself - part of the fun of being a fan - but Pitt lacks elite talent.

I do think a lineup of Gibbs, Moore, Birch, Robinson and Taylor could be pretty formidable as the season progresses. A nice combination of athletes, experience and attitude. Maybe not a true point but we haven't had one since Fields - and he wasn't 100% his last two years.

Do you see Dixon rising up to the Calhouns and Boeheims in terms of recruiting talent (year in and year out) or is he destined to coach up less talented, albeit with heart, players?

At 10:24 PM, Blogger Pitt said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11:15 PM, Blogger Chris Dokish said...

Adams is iffy just because he's coming from another country. Birch and Johnson are not eligible yet. If I had to guess, I think all three will be at Pitt, but it's no guarantee that all three will make it. I think Johnson especially could have to prep for a year. And I think there's a good chance that Bond will prep but not because of grades. He just needs another year of seasoning.

As for whether or not Dixon can ever routinely recruit elite talent, that's the million dollar question. I've always said he can, but when I talk to people like Jay Bilas and Mike DeCourcy they don't think he will because of Pitt's poor recruiting base. But, hey, they are perhaps close right now.

If they could, for example, land Amile Jefferson, and possibly Omar Calhoun to boot, along with Birch and Adams, then Dixon has done it. He has broken through in recruiting the elite. And then he would go further in the tournament and get first round draft picks, which then should be enough for future elite prospects. Like Syracuse and UConn, he wouldn't need locals. He would be able to recruit more regionally and maybe even nationally.

At 8:41 PM, Blogger Tony77019 said...

Great article, Doke. You are one sportswriter who keeps me fascinated, one eye on the page bar hoping we are not reaching the end.
Is Dixon's coaching in the tournament off the hook as a result of not having elite talent? Would elite talent have brought us a win over Butler? Just wondering.

At 9:48 AM, Blogger Chris Dokish said...

Pitt's talent was no better than Villanova, Pacific, Xavier, and Butler but it wasn't worse either. Sometimes you have to win those games. Against Pacific, the team was lost way before that obviously. Against Xavier, the teams were even except that Xavier had the best player on the floor. Against Villanova and Butler it could have went either way, obviously, and whether it was coaching or just bad luck, it didn't work out for Pitt in those games. But the great coaches find a way to get it done. Look at Brad Stevens. I think you can make a strong case that Stevens is a better coach than Dixon.

At 7:27 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Excellent take on Pitt's lack of tournament success.

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Jack Korner said...

I don't understand this "elite" talent stuff. Who determines that? I would much rather have a talented player willing to be coached to success, than an "elite" player looking for a ticket to the pros. The goal should not be how well you do in the NCAA tourney, but how well you do in life. After all, isn't that what a college education is supposed to do for you.


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