Pitt Basketball Preview: Do Panthers Have What It Takes To Reach The Final Four?


In Jamie Dixon’s first year in the ACC, his Pitt Panthers were relatively successful, beating the average and below-average squads and winning enough games down the stretch to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Pitt was deemed a 9-seed, blew out Colorado, but then ran into the No. 1 Florida Gators and was essentially unable to score. The Panthers lost their two leading scorers as guard Lamar Patterson (17.6 ppg) was drafted in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks, and center Talib Zanna (12.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg) graduated.

Key returners for Pitt include senior guard Cameron Wright, senior center Derrick Randall, junior point guard James Robinson, junior guard Durand Johnson who missed much of last season with a knee injury, sophomore forwards Michael Young and Jamel Artis, and sophomore guards Josh Newkirk and Chris Jones.

Wright will miss the beginning of the season due to a broken left foot, and there is currently no set date for his return.

Junior center Joseph Uchebo is expected to fill some of the void left by Zanna’s departure, and a set of newcomers, sophomore transfer power forward Sheldon Jeter and junior transfer center Tyrone Haughton will likely contribute to the Panthers immediately.

The biggest question going into the season is, “Who will step up and become a legitimate scoring threat?”

Do the Panthers have someone who can light up the scoreboard? I am not so sure, though if I had to make a prediction, I think Durand Johnson could be that guy.

It will be fun watching this Panthers squad gel and progress throughout the year. Pitt was picked to finish sixth in the ACC, and I agree with where the Panthers were placed.

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Let’s take a deeper look into Pitt’s schedule and how I see the Panthers 2014 season unfolding.

Pitt shouldn’t have a problem with Niagara or Samford to begin the year. Pitt will have a rare road game early in the season at Hawaii, but this shouldn’t be an issue either.

The Panthers will then participate in their first Maui Invitational and defeat host Chaminade in the first round. Pitt is scheduled to play the winner of San Diego Statte and BYU, and I think it will be San Diego State who is ranked 16th in the AP Top 25.

At this point, I see Pitt at 4-0, but I think San Diego State will knock Pitt out of contention for the Maui Championship. Pitt could then potentially face a Missouri or Kansas State squad, and I think Pitt has enough firepower to beat either of those squads. A third-place finish wouldn’t be too bad, but wouldn’t it be fun to face Arizona in the championship game?

Pitt, now at 5-1, will travel to face Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and the Panthers will win one for the ACC, which may turn out to be the strongest league this upcoming season. Pitt will then defeat city-rival Duquesne, St. Bonaventure, Manhattan, and Oakland to raise their record to 9-1.

However, I feel that Pitt will be upset at least once in nonconference, and this may happen against either Holy Cross or Florida Gulf Coast, both of which have had NCAA Tourney experience. I will go out on a limb and say that Florida Gulf Coast will knock Pitt off at home, reminiscent of their magical Elite Eight run a few years ago.

Jan 6, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers forward Durand Johnson (5) dribbles the ball as Maryland Terrapins forward Evan Smotrycz (1) defends during the first half at the Petersen Events Center. Pittsburgh won 79-59. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt will then enter ACC play with a 11-2 mark. I envision Pitt struggling in its first two ACC road games, but they will manage to pull both out against N.C. State and Boston College.  The Panthers will then beat Clemson, Florida State, and Georgia Tech to up their record to 16-2.

The Panthers will then travel to fourth-ranked Duke and lose to the Blue Devils, followed by a loss to the eighth-ranked Louisville Cardinals at home. Pitt will rebound with a win at home against Virginia Tech, followed by wins against a pesky Notre Dame squad and a strange nonconference game against Bryant.

The Panthers will be 19-4 and about to go into their toughest stretch of the season. Some fans will ask who Pitt has beaten and if they have any quality wins.

This stretch will make or break Pitt’s season.

Pitt will host the 23rd-ranked Syracuse Orange and knock off Jim Boeheim’s squad.  Pitt always plays well against the Orange at home.  Pitt will then travel to Louisville and fall to the Cardinals for the second time this year.  The Panthers will pull off a huge win against the UNC Tar Heels, and become ranked with a 21-5 record.

Facing the ninth-ranked Virginia Cavaliers on the road, Pitt will struggle against the defending ACC champions and likely lose in another close game. Pitt will then fall to Syracuse on the road, dropping its record to 21-7.

I then envision Pitt winning three of their final four ACC games against Boston College, Wake Forest, and Miami, and Florida State. Pitt’s final game of the season will result in their eighth loss of the year.

Dixon’s Panthers, with a 24-8 mark, will be a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, and I think they could win a few rounds in both the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tourney.

Much could change by this point, but I see Pitt making it to the ACC Semifinals and the NCAA Sweet 16. I just don’t think the Panthers have a player that can carry the team on his back and go on a hot streak like Kemba Walker from UConn or Russ Smith from Louisville in years past.

Regardless, Pitt should have a solid season and will be even better in 2015. I believe the Panthers could make a Final Four run in 2015 or 2016, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if they pulled it off this season.

Anything is possible. Just ask the defending NCAA champion UConn Huskies.