December 15, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Jamie Dixon yells instructions to his team against the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats during the first half at the Petersen Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Panthers basketball benefits from largely weak non-conference schedule

The Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball team had the second easiest schedule of any team in the power six conference and the result is an 12-1 start.

The only legitimate opponent the Panthers faced were the Michigan Wolverines. The Wolverines are currently 12-0 and second in both the AP and ESPN polls. This was a game that Pittsburgh should have won, but they were unable to hold on in the last 10 minutes losing a 67-62 contest. It is the closest the Wolverines have been to a loss and would have had Pitt in the top 25 without a doubt.

Outside of that, Pittsburgh has faced Detroit and Lehigh who had Ray McCallum and C.J. McCollum, the latter of which has a good chance of being a lottery pick in the next NBA Draft.

The Panthers have not impressed me much in these ‘money games as these games were kick ins, and they either obliterated their opponents or struggled in the first half.

The Big East deserves some of the blame here. Pitt was supposed to be a part of the Big East-SEC challenge and they were supposed to face the Kentucky Wildcats – the defending champions and a team that has assembled another talented freshmen class despite a 7-3 record. This would have been a great matchup and silenced some of the many critics of the Panthers non-conference schedule, but the Big East was upset at them leaving the conference and pulled the matchup.

A game that should have been a loss was the November 17 victory against Oakland. Greg Kampe led his team well and they had a 14 point lead at the half and 18 at a point in the second half. This was a game they should have won, but the Panthers finally woke up and won the game in an overtime runaway. As great as it was that Pitt came back and got the victory, this was a game that it shouldn’t have come down to that.

Regardless of that though, the Panthers have shown a lot of growth. This year, they have a clear leader in Tray Woodall. It is important that they win all of these games as a lack of leadership showed last season when the Panthers lost to Long Beach State and the big loss to Wagner which set off eight straight losses and sent Pittsburgh to the CBI.

Woodall has raised his game, the threes are falling, his passing is crisp as shown these past two game [18 assists and only three field goals attempted]. Perhaps his biggest contribution though is the growth of James Robinson. Robinson was a pass first guard that seemed tentative when it came down to calling his own number but with Woodall’s help, he has stepped up offensively. Robinson has a high basketball IQ and his assist-turnover ratio is very impressive.

As the season has progressed, Steven Adams has become a more confident player. He looked lost offensively to start the season and unable to keep up with the pace of the game, however his offensive intensity is starting to match his defense. He has been in double figures in the last two games. While he did play cupcake opponents, these two games could help his momentum as Big East play will start on New Year’s Eve against a tough and battle tested Cincinnati team.

Durand Johnson has battled injuries this season but when he is on, he can provide minutes and make a couple of threes. I was unsure of what to expect from the redshirt, but he can provide some depth and that is needed for this team, especially if the injury bug continues.

J.J. Moore has continued his scoring but at a new position. He is still coming off the bench, but he has played more of a power forward position. Because of injuries he put on 15 pounds of muscle and the switch was made and it has paid off. He is third on the team in scoring with 10.6. He essentially has become a Gilbert Brown to me in that he can come off the bench and be a big help or he can put up a stinker of a game. Still he averages 20.6 minutes a game and that time is really important and he clearly is the sixth man of this team and could easily start if needed.

I was a critic of Lamar Patterson’s struggles and it is still frustrating to see his inconsistencies. I really thought this would be a breakout for him and it really has not been. His skill set is there and from what Head Coach Jamie Dixon says in practice, he is doing great in practices. Patterson is a leader of this team but he has not been able to lead by example. He needs to become more confident in taking the things he does in practice and carry it into games. He needs to put up some shots and he has started to do this lately but come Big East, his growth could determine how far this team goes.

Dante Taylor has gone to the bench but as a senior he has provided good leadership and his work ethic in practice has carried over to the games. He has become a more consistent player that wants to make an impact and to the fans, it looks like he is happy to play basketball again. Steven Adams has been in foul trouble this season and Dixon is confident that Taylor can come in and do good. Taylor currently is nursing a heel injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s victory against Delaware State but he is expected to play tomorrow but a healthy #11 will definitely help Pitt’s depth and confidence.

Cameron Wright has stepped up his game. Watching him in Summer League, I could tell that he was working on becoming a more aggressive player on the offensive side of the ball. He had established himself as a defensive player who could come in and guard but this year he has been more willing to shoot and Wright has become more polished as a basketball player. Dixon seems more willing to put Wright in knowing he is one of the team’s best defenders and able to score a basket if needed.

Talib Zanna has been the most improved player showing his consistency and his range. He has established a new career high in points scoring 20 points three times this season. Zanna’s midrange game has drastically improved. Zanna has started as the power forward but proved his worth as backup center in Wednesday’s win against Delaware State. He has proven himself to be a tremendous asset and has to have plenty of confidence going into Big East play.

Trey Ziegler has had his troubles between the DUI, foul trouble and his defensive troubles. Ziegler though showed accountability for his action and is getting back into the swing of things. He will get minutes, but how many determines on Dixon and his mindset that the best defenders off the bench will get minutes when he referred to Ziegler, Wright and Johnson.

John Johnson is no longer a Panther. He was upset about a lack of minutes and playing time. Johnson has transferred to Penn State and must sit out a year much like Khem Birch before coming back. Johnson was a casualty of Pitt’s depth and his shots weren’t falling.

Nonconference in review:

11/9 vs Mount St. Mary’s W 80-48
11/12 vs Fordham W 86-51
11/13 vs Lehigh W 78-53
11/17 vs Oakland W 72-62 OT
11/21 vs Michigan [@ Madison Square Garden] L 67-62
11/23 vs Delaware {@ Madison Square Garden] W 85-59
11/27 vs Howard W 70-46
12/1 vs Detroit W 74-61
12/5 vs Duquesne [@ Consol Energy Center] W 66-45
12/8 vs North Florida W 89-47
12/15 vs Bethune Cookman W 89-40
12/19 vs Delaware State W 71-43
12/23 vs Kennesaw State W 59-43

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