Pitt Basketball Preview: Panthers Kick Off Season Against Gonzaga On Carrier Ship


I attended the Pitt scrimmage against Gannon last Friday to get a glimpse of the new players and transfers for Jamie Dixon‘s Pitt Panthers.

Pitt easily won the contest 80-50 despite a slow start, shooting 1 of 10 to begin the game.

The Panthers cannot afford to do this on Friday against No. 9 Gonzaga.  They’ll dig themselves into a hole too deep to overcome.

Before I get into the schedule with my predictions, here are a few thoughts from what I witnessed last Friday.  Obviously it is tough to make conclusions based on an exhibition against Gannon.

  1. Pitt may have found a solution to their glaring weakness at center, and for this season it won’t be Rozelle Nix.  Massive 7-foot, 300-pound center Nix will be redshirted this season.  This is likely because of two graduate transfers.  Richmond transfer 6-foot-9 Alonzo Nelson-Ododa got the start for Pitt, and I think he can be a presence for the Panthers.  He blocked a shot into the stands and showed nice touch on a jump shot.  Brown transfer 6-foot-9 Rafael Maia also got some time at center and is physical enough to battle with any center in the ACC.  6-foot-9 sophomore Ryan Luther substituted for Nelson-Ododa and held his own.
  2. Redshirt freshman Cameron Johnson could be a matchup problem.  Cam Johnson has a very nice shot.  Scoring 13 points in the opener, he can hit the three and also has a nice mid-range game.  The 6-foot-7 guard will only get better, and he could be difficult for smaller guards to handle.
  3. Sterling Smith and Jonathan Milligan could be difference makers at the guard position.  Coppin State graduate transfer guard Smith can shoot the three-pointer, and junior college transfer Milligan is an excellent ball handler, often making the crowd woo in excitement.  Smith got the start against Gannon, and Milligan came off the bench and instantly contributed.
  4. Michael Young now has freedom from the center position.  It was great to see Young playing at the power forward position.  He can now move around more on offense and be a matchup problem inside and outside the paint.
  5. Will Jamel Artis be a starter?  Artis came off the bench Friday, as Dixon insisted that he needed to play better defense.  Artis scored 13 points for Pitt and is clearly one of Pitt’s best shooters.  I am curious to see Dixon’s starting lineup against Gonzaga.
  6. Incoming freshman Damon Wilson Jr. is a wildcard.  He did not play in the scrimmage due to injury, so the 6-foot-5 lefty guard remains a mystery to me.  If Wilson becomes a significant playmaker this season, Pitt could be a dangerous team down the stretch.

We will quickly find out how Pitt can handle size and athleticism, as the Panthers open the season in a rare setting against a Top-10 opponent in the Gonzaga Bulldogs.  This game will be the Armed Forces Classic, played in Okinawa, Japan.

Gonzaga finished 35-3 last year and is a legitimate final four contender.  They reached the NCAA Tourney for the 16th consecutive season under coach Mark Few and they fell to Duke in the Elite Eight.

Gonzaga returns 6-foot-10 senior guard/ forward Kyle Wiltjer, a transfer from Kentucky.  He led the team in scoring at 16.8 points per game.  7-foot-1 senior center Przemek Karnowski returns, averaging 10.0, while 6-foot-11 sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis averaged 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds as a freshman last season.

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This is Pitt’s toughest opener during the Dixon regime, where the Panthers are 12-0 in season openers and have won 18 consecutive openers.  Gonzaga is not the typical creampuff.

The 8,000 mile journey to Okinawa will be challenging, but Pitt is excited for the opportunity.

As much as I like Pitt, I don’t think the Panthers will be able to defeat Gonzaga.  The Bulldogs did lose several of their guards, but I think Wiltjer, Sabonis, and Karnowski present serious challenges to a Panthers team that needs time to gel.  Pitt usually improves over a season, and I think Pitt will lose by 8-10 points in this one.  There is word that Sabonis may miss the game due to a back injury, so that could make a difference in this game.

Pitt should be able to gain wins over Saint Joseph’s Indiana, Detroit, Cornell, and Kent State at the Peterson Events Center.  Therefore, I expect Pitt to be 4-1, facing Purdue at home in the ACC/ Big Ten Challenge.  The Boilermakers are currently ranked No. 23, and I think this will be Pitt’s first good win of the season.

After Purdue, I think Pitt has a shot at winning the next 9 games against Duquesne, Central Arkansas, Eastern Washington, Morehead State, Davidson at MSG, Western Carolina, Syracuse, Maryland Eastern Shore, and Georgia Tech.  Syracuse will likely be down this season with their penalties from last year, but it feels like Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney have played over a decade for the Orange. Marcus Georges-Hunt will be tough to contain from Georgia Tech.

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Of all those games, the best shot at Pitt losing would be to Davidson on a neutral court, and an upset by Eastern Washington.  Davison has Player of the Year candidate Jack Gibbs, a junior 6-foot guard who could give Pitt problems.  Eastern Washington lost the leading scorer in the nation in Tyler Harvey (22.9 points per game), but the Big Sky powerhouse three members of last season’s all conference first team.

I’ll predict losses to Davidson and Eastern Washington, giving Pitt a 12-3 record as they travel to South Bend to take on No. 19 Notre Dame.  Pitt usually struggles on the road against Notre Dame, in which they often run into hot shooters.  Chalk this up as a loss and Pitt sits at 12-4, as the Panthers struggle against Demetrius Jackson and the Irish.

Pitt then travels to Louisville, hosts Boston College and NC State, then travels to Florida State and Clemson, then hosts Virginia Tech.  I think Louisville will have a down year amid the prostitution scandal, and the toughest game in this stretch is NC State, who returns Anthony Barber, Abdul Malik-Abu, Lennard Freeman, BeeJay Anya, and the Martin twins.  6-foot-7 incoming freshman Maverick Rowan originally committed to Pitt but is now on the Wolfpack roster, and WVU transfer guard Terry Henderson is eligible this season.  Luckily this game is at home, and I think Pitt is ready for revenge against the Wolfpack, who had their number last season.

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  • I may be reaching here, but I say Pitt wins all 6 of these games, though every away ACC game is tough.  Pitt will have to shut down Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Devon Bookert when the Panthers play in Tallahassee, and 6-foot-7 forward Jaron Blossomgame  from Clemson. The Seminoles continue to recruit size, as they’ll have three 7-footers, including 7-foot-4 incoming freshman Jean Marc Christ Koumadje from Chad.  He’ll complement 7-foot-3 Boris Bojanovsky and 7-foot-1 Michael Ojo.  This stretch improves Pitt to 18-4 with a promising chance at making the NCAA Tourney.

    Sitting at 18-4, Pitt will welcome No. 6 Virginia to the Pete, and I predict that the Panthers continue their dominance over Top-10 teams at home, winning on a buzzer beater to secure a huge win and improve to 19-4.  It won’t be easy though, as Virginia returns Anthony Gill, London Perrantes, Malcolm Brogdon, and Marial Shayok.  Maybe 6-foot-5 senior guard Brogdon will be on the opposite side of a buzzer beater this time around.

    Then I think Pitt will hit a road bump, falling to Miami and No. 1 North Carolina, who will be looking for revenge from last Valentine’s Day thumping in Pittsburgh.  The Hurricanes return senior guards Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan, along with 7-foot center Tonye Jekiri.  A healthy Marcus Paige could be difficult for Pitt, and Brice Johnson, Justin Jackson, and Kennedy Meeks all return.  Pitt then hosts Wake Forest, who I think will be a surprise team this season.  The Demon Deacons return Codi Miller-McIntyre, Devin Thomas, Cornelius Hudson, and Mitchell Wilbikin.  A three-game losing streak knocks Pitt to 19-7 and on the infamous “Bubble.”

    The final five games of the season will be at Syracuse, vs Louisville, vs No. 5 Duke, at Virginia Tech, and at Georgia Tech, and none of these games will be easy.  Obviously, a win over Duke puts Pitt into the NCAA Tournament, but I don’t think Pitt has the talent to beat Duke’s All-Americans.  I think that 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Grayson Allen will be one of the biggest stories for the ACC, and Pitt will have trouble stopping him.  Pitt goes 3-2 down the stretch here, with the additional loss at Virginia Tech.  With a 22-9 (12-6 ACC) record, I think Pitt makes the tournament somewhere between a 6 and 8 seed.

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    That would be a pretty successful year for a team picked to finish 10th in the ACC, and of which lost to George Washington in the first round of the NIT.

    I think an experienced core of returning talent, along with experienced graduate transfers make Pitt a potentially dangerous team.

    It all depends how this team gels.

    What do you think Pitt will do this season?