Roster continues to be in flux
By Chris Dokish
Pitt's low post, already a question mark for next season, lost their depth when 6'7" PF/C J.J. Richardson announced he was transferring from the program. I reported recently that the Panthers coaches were looking forward to Richardson providing some minutes in reserve next season, but apparently Richardson has had enough of being a Panther. And make no mistake about it, this was Richardson's decision, not Pitt's decision.
The absence of Richardson now leaves four genuine low post players on the team in Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna, Khem Birch, and Malcolm Gilbert. All four, however, have question marks as of now.
Taylor, a former Parade All-American, will start at center, but he has been considered a bit of a disappointment thus far in his career, averaging 4.6 ppg over his freshman and sophomore seasons. His development next season is arguably the single most important one in the program.
Zanna has very good length and athleticism, but when given the opportunity to wrestle the starting power forward job off of an injured Nasir Robinson early in the season, Zanna disappointed many at Pitt by not taking the job by the reins. This forced the Panthers to continue to play the overmatched Robinson. Zanna did have some very good games early on and the Pitt staff is hoping that he can regain that level, then be more consistent.
Birch and Gilbert are both true freshman with excellent potential, but both also have some potential barriers. Birch is not yet eligible and until he gets his situation settled, the Pitt staff will have many sleepless nights. If he is eligible, he will be a major factor in the season. Without him, Gilbert will be forced to play a lot of minutes. As it is, with the departure of Richardson, the staff will likely have to burn any potential redshirt for the seven footer. That may not necessarily be a bad thing, however. Seven foot shot blockers, not matter how raw offensively, find themselves in the NBA sooner rather than later, and it may be better to get him on the court when they still can.
Even worse, the roster problems are not limited to the big men. On the perimeter, Ashton Gibbs is testing the NBA waters, and while he hasn't hired an agent yet, it's far from a foregone conclusion that Gibbs will return to the school. His chances of being in the NBA, and probably even being drafted, are virtually nil, but there is always the opportunity to play overseas.
If Gibbs leaves, the starting shooting guard will probably be Cameron Wright, a redshirt freshman. Needless to say, the drop off would be huge. To make matters worse, there's a good chance that incoming combo guard John Johnson will not see the floor next season. Johnson's eligibility is a major concern, and a prep school year is very possible, but even if he does somehow make it to Pitt, he is considered too raw to see much, if any, time as a true freshman.
For those counting at home, the Panthers went from two over their scholarship limit, and still recruiting players for 2011, to being back to even, and perhaps still dropping even more. As much as anybody, I know how great Jamie Dixon can coach in the regular season. More than once he has had teams overachieve. But next season could turn into a roster that even he may have problems succeeding with. If the likes of Gibbs and Birch are not with the team, it's hard to imagine that even Dixon can win a lot of games with a potential starting five of Travon Woodall, Cameron Wright, Nasir Robinson, Lamar Patterson, and Dante Taylor, but it's not out of the question that that's exactly the hand he is dealt.
On the other hand, if Gibbs returns, and Birch becomes eligible, the Panthers should have yet another top 15 season with 25+ wins. And the future may be even brighter than that, especially in the spot we started- on the blocks. In 2012, the low post could feature three top 50 prospects in Taylor, Birch, and the incoming Steven Adams, as well as Zanna and Gilbert. The five, potentially, could be the deepest and most talented big man corps that the Panthers ever had. If the Panthers could develop a good point guard, and could land either Omar Calhoun or Amile Jefferson, 2012 could be the year that the Panthers are, for the first time since Paul Evans coached, truly loaded.