This past Saturday, the hopes and dreams of the Pitt Panthers and their fans were abruptly ended by the No. 1 Florida Gators in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32.
Some argue that Pitt (26-10, 11-7 ACC) was given a terrible seeding based off of a pretty successful year. Some will say that the Panthers put themselves in the No. 9 positioning based on a weak nonconference schedule – ranked 238th in Division 1 – and their inability to defeat a highly-ranked opponent. (Stanford is looking pretty good in the NCAA Tournament, though!)
I think the 2013-14 Pitt Panthers were a prime example of a team who never had a bad loss, yet couldn’t defeat a team that was essentially better than them on paper. The NCAA selection committee should put some precedence into “close losses” compared to “blowouts,” as Pitt lost to three top 10 opponents on buzzer beaters (Cincinnati, Virginia, Syracuse).
Nonetheless, the past is the past and Pitt must move on. Going into this season and the first year in the ACC, I had my doubts as to how the Panthers would fare, especially after the graduation of Travon Woodall and Dante Taylor, the departure of Steven Adams to the NBA, and the transfers of J.J. Moore, Trey Zeigler, John Johnson, and Malcolm Gilbert.
With a program in such a transition with much uncertainty, how could Pitt compete in the supposed “best conference” with a whole new set of players?
Pitt absolutely surprised me. I never thought I would have been writing about Pitt squaring off against the No. 1 team in the country in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Pitt also made it to semifinals in the ACC Tournament, bowing out with a three-point loss to top seed Virginia. Pitt had a significantly better season than regional rivals Penn State and West Virginia, both of whom did not make the Big Dance.
Pitt lasted longer in the NCAA Tournament than Duke, Cincinnati and Ohio State. Pitt was eliminated in the same round as Wichita State, Kansas, Syracuse, North Carolina, Villanova and Creighton.
Despite the heartbreak and the eventual loss against a really good Gators squad, I was proud of how this season went for the Panthers. At times, it was nice seeing the Panthers in an unusual underdog role.
Moving on to next season, I believe there is reason that Pitt fans should be optimistic about this team. The Panthers will lose Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna to graduation, but the rest of the core will return.
As for a projected starting lineup, starters who are returning include point guard James Robinson (junior), guard Cameron Wright (senior), and forward Michael Young (sophomore). For the other guard position, I look for injured sixth man Durand Johnson (redshirt junior) to step in and fill the void left by Patterson.
Though I can see Robinson, Wright, and Johnson as the starters because of the way Jamie Dixon coaches, there is reason to believe that someone could beat any of those three out. Other key returning players include Josh Newkirk and Jamel Artis, who will be sophomores. Freshmen contributed greatly to Pitt’s success last season.
Add in redshirt sophomore Chris Jones, who is a very good shooter, and incoming shooting guard Detrick Mostella, who many have considered a scorer that Pitt has lacked over the years.
Pitt has always needed a pure scorer; I watched local product and Iowa State star DeAndre Kane hit the game-winning layup against UNC in the Round of 32 and thought, “What if?” Hopefully Mostella could be that guy.
Pitt may be a little weak at the center position, where only senior Derrick Randall returns. I would hope that Dixon does not move Young or Artis to the 5 spot (as he tried to do with Khem Birch and Dante Taylor), as they both are ideal for the 4 spot (or maybe even the 3 spot for Artis).
Junior 6-foot-10 center Joseph Uchebo could also have an impact, granted he recovers from last season’s injury. Plus, Pitt has 6-foot-9 JUCO center Tyrone Haughton and 6-foot-11 center Shaquille Doorson coming in next season to compete for the starting position.
Other incoming players include local standouts Ryan Luther (freshman) from Hampton, Pa., and former Vanderbilt power forward Sheldon Jeter (sophomore) from Beaver Falls, Pa. It is important to note that Pitt is over its scholarship limit, meaning that one or two players from last year’s squad may be transferring. Keep checking City of Champions for updated news on transfers/recruiting commitments.
With the returning talent and the incoming talent, there is no reason to believe that Pitt will have a drop-off from this past season. I predict the Panthers to once again finish in the top 5 of the ACC. Though Pitt will be pretty good next season, I am going to predict that the Panthers will be a possible top 10 basketball team the following season, as next year’s team will only lose Wright and Randall.
For the Class of 2015, Jamie Dixon already has a pledge from 4-star shooting guard Damon Wilson. For the Class of 2016, Dixon has commitments from 5-star small forward Mustapha Heron, whom many believe could compete at the college level as a sophomore, and local star Maverick Rowan, who recently helped win a Pennsylvania state championship for Lincoln Park.
Panthers fans should be excited for what the future may hold. Look for Pitt to possibly square off against Sean Miller and his Arizona squad in the Maui Invitational next fall.