Friday, April 15, 2011

Panthers nab Marshall assistant

By Chris Dokish

Tom Herrion was an excellent assistant coach for Pitt before leaving to be the head coach of Marshall prior to this past season. Now Herrion keeps giving to the program as his right hand man at Marshall this season, Bill Barton, will be named shortly to Dixon's staff. According to a source close to the situation, "It's a done deal." It is expected to be announced officially on Monday.

Barton, who will be 51 in July, is a Boston native who coached for just one season at Marshall. Prior to that he spent three seasons under Ron Everhart at Duquesne. The Dukes were the first college position for Barton, who previously was the coach at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, MA, which just happens to be one of the most talent rich prep schools in the country. Players at Notre Dame that Barton coached include Michael Beasley, Carl Krauer, Ryan Gomes, Paul Harris, and Lazar Hayward. For the 2011 class, Notre Dame features top prospect Ricky Ledo, who the Panthers have recruited mildly over the past year, as well as Myles Davis, a sharpshooting guard that is the cousin of Brandin Knight, and who the Panthers have recruited for over a year.

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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.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Possible assistant coaching candidates

By Chris Dokish

I've been fortunate enough that when Dave Wannstedt, Todd Graham, Tom Herrion, and Pat Skerry were hired, I had all on my list of potential candidates. The only major Pitt hiring I did not have was Michael Haywood, who I investigated and did not list because I didn't think Pitt would make such a bad hire. Enough said on that one. This time it's a little more difficult because there is no one obvious hire.

The top contenders:

Dave Leitao- Will be 51 next month. Native of Massachusetts. Played for Jim Calhoun at Northeastern, then became an assistant for his former coach at both Northeastern and UConn. Later became the head coach at DePaul and then Virginia. Considered one of the best recruiters in college basketball over the last twenty years and recruited extremely well everywhere he's been, including DePaul where he had one of the top five recruiting classes in the country one season. The downside? Not everybody loves his personality. "Arrogant beyond belief," according to one college basketball insider who prefers to remain anonymous. "Gotta be somebody better. Dixon would regret that one". That may be why he just lost out on the starting job at Fairfield last week, a job that he is more than qualified for. But the fact remains, he was Dixon's first choice before Pat Skerry was hired so you would think he would ask again. Ed Cooley, new head coach at Providence, wants to land Leitao for his first chair, but you would think Pitt would be a better option for him.

Barry Rohrssen- Will be 51 in June. Native of New York City. Recently fired as the head coach of Manhattan after five seasons. "Slice", as everybody in college basketball knows him, was at Pitt from 1999 to 2006, starting as Director of Basketball Operations and ending as the Associate Head Coach. Most prized recruit at Pitt was top 50 prospect Chris Taft, but also landed the likes of Carl Krauser, Ronald Ramon, Keith Benjamin, and Levance Fields. He recruited well at Manhattan, too, but he proved to be overmatched as a head coach. Still, though, many in NYC were upset at his firing because his players graduated and he brought professionalism back to the program that his predecessor, Bobby Gonzalez, sucked away. The downside of hiring him back, however, is that he only recruits the NYC area and the city has been down in talent for a few years. Plus, Brandin Knight is already strong in northern New Jersey and could handle the city, too. At the end of the day, it just may come down to whether or not Dixon wants to go back to a guy he knows or if he wants to get new blood.

Leitao could turn down an offer if made, just like he did last year. Rohrssen probably would not turn down an offer. If the job does not go to either of the above two, then it's because Dixon wanted to go a completely different route. In that case, these are some possibilities:

Jeff Battle- 50 years old. Native of Philadelphia. Currently the top assistant at Wake Forest where he has been for the past ten seasons. Was an assistant at Xavier with Skip Prosser then followed him to Wake Forest. One of the top recruiters and assistant coaches in the country. Was passed over for Dino Gaudio when Prosser suddenly passed away, then was passed over again for current coach Jeff Bzdelik after Gaudio was fired. Bzdelik is currently on the hot seat and Battle may think if he stays around then he will eventually be named the head coach for the Demon Deacons. Was my personal favorite the last time (Skerry was second), but like last time, there may be extenuating circumstances that keeps him from leaving Wake Forest. His wife died of cancer three years ago and Battle didn't want to move his son away to a different place. That son is 17-years old this year. His top notch reputation as one of the best assistants in the country, as well as his ties to Philadelphia, would make him a huge hire.

Dino Gaudio- 54 years old. Native of Ohio. Like Battle, he followed Prosser from Xavier. Has a lot of head coaching experience, with Army, Loyola (MD), and three years at Wake Forest. A great recruiter who brought in the likes of Jeff Teague and Al-Farouq Aminu. He's currently an ESPN analyst and he's in no hurry to get a job. He'll probably wait to see if he can get a head coaching job somewhere but he's definitely worth a phone call. His recruiting skills and vast coaching experience would benefit Dixon greatly.

Sean Kearney- 52 years old. Native of suburban Philadelphia. Longtime right hand man for Mike Brey both at Delaware and Notre Dame, and has been responsible for recruiting and/or developing the likes of Troy Murphy, Ryan Humphrey, Torin Francis, Chris Thomas, and Luke Harangody. Replaced Ralph Willard as head coach of Holy Cross (over Tom Herrion, then at Pitt), but was fired after just one season. While the Crusaders finished 9-22 after being named the Patriot League favorite, many college basketball observers were appalled at the quick firing. Kearney was out of basketball last year, but his great reputation in college basketball, his Philadelphia roots, and the fact that he is a friend of Dixon makes him a viable candidate.

Scott Spinelli- 44 years old. Native of Massachusetts. Current top assistant at Texas A&M under Mark Turgeon. Also was the top assistant at Wichita State, also with Turgeon, and at Nebraska when Steve Pederson was the AD. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have ties to the east. Not only is he from New England, but he also started the program at The Winchendon School in MA, which just happens to be one of the best prep schools in the country for basketball talent. He also was a scout for one year for the Philadelphia 76ers and covered the Big East and northeast high school basketball. He is a well known and highly respected recruiter and assistant who is very close to landing a head coaching job.

Kenya Hunter- 37 years old. Native of Virginia. Former Duquesne guard is currently an assistant at Georgetown where he is quickly developing the reputation as one of the best young recruiters and assistants in the country. Between his first stop at his alma mater and the Hoyas, he was also the Director of Basketball Operations under Herb Sendek at NC State, and an assistant at Xavier, under Sean Miller. His ties to the Washington, DC area would be a great addition.

Matt Langel- 32 years old. Native of southern New Jersey. If Dixon decides that he wants to go for a rising young star instead of a longtime veteran, he may look to this former Penn star. Langel started at his alma mater under Fran Dunphy then followed him to Temple. He showed he was a great recruiter when he went all out to land Owls' star Juan Fernandez all the way in Argentina. With his connections in Philadelphia and by learning the trade from one of the best in the business, his future is extremely bright. He was recently one of the finalists for the Cornell job and being an assistant at a Big East power would be a no brainer for him for his resume. Now he just has to be asked.

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Friday, April 01, 2011

If I coached the team next season

By Chris Dokish

Just for fun, this would be my ideal lineup next season.

Starting PG- Travon Woodall. I was never one who thought he would be excellent at Pitt, and I still don't, but he is the closest thing to a real point guard they have right now. He needs to shoot less and distribute more, and he needs to get more steals because he is capable of getting two steals a game if he has his mind set on it. But most of all, he needs to be more in control. It's time for him to mature as a player.

Starting SG- Ashton Gibbs. Obviously this is a no brainer. Hopefully he realizes that he won't make it in the NBA and that he's going to live 40 more years after he retires from playing overseas, so he should get in as much education as he can.

Starting SF- J.J. Moore. I have heard straight from the staff's mouths that while Moore is the most talented SF in the program, he was not ready to see the floor much as a freshman. With a year under his belt, hopefully he learns the nuances of being a Panther, especially on the defensive front. If he's not ready, then replace him as a starter with Lamar Patterson.

Starting PF- Khem Birch. This is another no brainer. His length, quickness, shot blocking, and rebounding are lottery pick caliber. True, he has no moves on offense, but neither does Nasir Robinson and he can score. Birch will score the same way, by hustling, put backs, and sheer athleticism. He is by far the most talented player on the team and if he sits behind Robinson then Jamie Dixon will get the criticism he deserves.

Starting C- Dante Taylor. The time has come for Taylor to show that he is a good player. Even though Pitt fans wildly overhyped him (despite many warnings), Taylor can be a good player, and should be a big upgrade over Gary McGhee on the offensive end. He is also a better rebounder than McGhee, and he needs to be aggressive in that department. He needs to play at least adequately on defense, however, or the offensive upgrade will be negated.

Top four off the bench:

Nasir Robinson- No way, no how should he be starting, but that doesn't mean he isn't a huge plus for the team. At the three and the four, Robinson can be a huge spark plug with his hustle and enthusiasm. He will get many minutes and on one of his good days, he can stay in the game and help a lot.

Lamar Patterson- The jack-of-all-trades type that Dixon loves. He can do a little bit of everything, and has great potential as an outside shooter. Must improve on defense, though, and keep his weight down. Will definitely see time at the three, and could even start, but it would be ideal if he could be an effective sub at both the three and the two, especially since there is a huge experience void at the latter.

Talib Zanna- He obviously has the potential at the four to be a good player, but it hasn't come together for him yet. Rebounding is his forte and if he is focused on that aspect of his game, he will get minutes.

J.J. Richardson- I know this will surprise many Panthers fans because most have him transferring, but as far as I know he will be back next season. In fact, if you talk to Pitt coaches, they never fail to mention him when talking about the front line next season. Ideally, Birch and Zanna are effective enough at the four to stay primarily there. Birch can see some minutes at the five, but Richardson can also suck up some minutes down low. He's not great, and at 6'8" he's not tall, but for a few minutes a game he can use his big body to be effective enough.


Cameron Wright- The most likely on this list to see time, but only because of the need for a SG reserve. If Robinson stays at that four, then Patterson will have to stay at the three. When Woodall sits down, Gibbs will probably have to take over the point, and when Gibbs sits down, somebody else has to take his place. Wright is not ready to make a big impact but he's long and athletic so at least he can provide something.

Isaiah Epps- Ideally he would be the back up PG for the Panthers this season but that may be asking a lot for player who was a huge disappointment for most of last season. If he sticks around, then he should get minutes early in the season to see how well he can do.

Durand Johnson- He was brought in for mainly one reason- he can flat out shoot the three. If he proves in practice that he can translate that skill immediately to this level, then he could see time this year. Otherwise, he is a redshirt candidate.

Malcolm Gilbert- Has little offensive game but is a legit 6'11" kid who can rebound. His best attribute, however, is his shot blocking which is at an NBA all-star level. Ideally, he can redshirt, but his shot blocking is so good that he may have to play. Don't count him out. He could be a factor this season.

John Johnson- Maybe the heir apparent to Woodall at the point but grades are a major issue. Even if he does somehow become eligible, he needs to be coached up a lot. No matter how you look at it, he is a major candidate to prep.

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