Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jaylen Bond heading to prep and Birch and Adams update

By Chris Dokish

As expected, and as I mentioned yesterday, Jaylen Bond is heading to prep school. From what I'm hearing, somebody in Bond's camp does not think he will play at Pitt for a few years (and he's right, I'm told), and that with his NBA aspirations, he may be better off taking a different route. This does not mean that he won't be back at Pitt. If the Panthers feel they need him again they will recruit him again, but do not be surprised if he does not come back.

I'm also hearing that Khem Birch's situation does not involve grades but rather a year that he had to repeat in high school in Canada when he changed from one province to another. It had nothing to do with academics, but rather the different rules in the new province. Sources are telling me that Pitt has a good case to use that year as a way of saying Birch has done all of his high school time.

I'm hearing that things are going well on the Steven Adams front. He will still have to pass his SATS, or equivalent, but he appears to be on track as far as his academics, and this his schoolwork will translate to admittance at Pitt.

While I'm here I may as well thrown in some other info...

Isaiah Epps as of now is returning, as is J.J. Richardson. That could always change but as far as Pitt is concerned both are coming back. Epps came on at the end of this season in practices and the staff thinks he can eventually contribute.

I'm still hearing that John Johnson may prep because of grades. He still has an entire year to make up what he has to, however, and DeJuan Blair and J.J. Moore were long shots at one time, too.

Lastly, I know a lot of fans think Malcolm Gilbert will redshirt, but that may not be the case. While the Panthers staff would love to redshirt him, he is a 7-footer who can block shots, and is the only true center on the team. For that reason they think they may have to play him some. But that's all too early to know. Unlike fans and media, the staff doesn't worry about that until next year.

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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.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Postseason thoughts

by Chris Dokish

Pitt did show up to play. That was not always the case in past tournament losses. But they played a team that was their equal and the result of the game showed just how equal the two teams are. Don't be fooled by which conference each team is in or in the seeds. Butler returned most of the team that went to the championship game last year. In fact, if Gordon Hayward did not leave early for the NBA they were considered by many to project as a top five preseason team.

But the truth is, Jamie Dixon is going to get a lot of criticism for losing this game. If it were just for this game, he probably shouldn't. Butler is an excellent team, Pitt played well, and either team could have won. Losses like this happen to the best of programs. But it's hard to keep making excuses for Dixon when it happens year after year. Eventually you just have to get past a certain point, especially in a season when you are a No. 1 seed.

Butler is a perfect example of a team that makes no excuses, and just goes out and wins when their season is on the line. That's not to suggest that Dixon will make excuses. He's too classy for that. But you have to feel for such a great guy and at the end of the game you could visibly see the pain in his face. It's almost as if he was thinking that he may be cursed.

Nobody knows what the future will hold for Dixon and the program. Could Dixon think he can't come back from this and eventually take another job? He's not the type to run from a challenge so you can forget that. As for the program, there will be a lot of young talent on the roster next year, and the future seems bright, but just like Dixon's future, time will tell how the program as a whole responds. I know many fans assume that Dixon will eventually break though to the promised land but that's far from certain. Many programs were great for ten or fifteen years, then the window closed for whatever reason and they fell back to the pack. Others did move on to become even bigger powers.

To get to the latter, more talent is definitely needed. Khem Birch, Steve Adams, Talib Zanna, and J.J. Moore are a good start but even more is needed. The dilemma is how to convince high level talent that Pitt is a National Championship caliber program when it's past and present is trying to convince them otherwise.

Other notes: I was often hard on Gilbert Brown, and he did miss the free throw that could have iced the game, but he was by far the best player Pitt had on this night. I still feel like he never lived up to his potential at Pitt, but his 24 points showed that he came to play in the game.

Nobody should complain that the refs called the foul on Nasir Robinson with less than a second to go. They also called a foul on Butler with just over a second to go, so they showed they were willing to do. That makes it all the more crazy why Robinson would be anywhere near Howard.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

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.

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