James Robinson looks to lead Pitt to 12th Tourney in 13 seasons
Pittsburgh Facts & Figures
Last season: 24-9 (12-6 Big East)
Postseason: NCAA Round of 64
Coach: Jamie Dixon (262-86 at Pittsburgh)
ACC projection: Seventh
Postseason projection: NCAA Round of 64
Hard to figure out what the letters A-C-C stand for around Pittsburgh these days. Is it Atlantic Coast Conference — the Panthers’ new league? Or Abrupt Continuous Changes — the Panthers’ offseason plight?
Pittsburgh transitions from the Big East to the ACC with more moving parts than a Quentin Tarantino flick. Coach Jamie Dixon lost two players to graduation, two to transfers (two others departed last season) and one to the NBA. Add a firing and hiring on the coaching staff and you have a team that will face challenges in trying to improve on a 24–9 record that included a one-and-done experience in the NCAA Tournament.
The biggest void is the somewhat surprising loss of richly talented 7-foot center Steven Adams, a blossoming star who bolted to the NBA after his freshman year.
Dixon, who’s never met a challenge he doesn’t like, must rely on a coaching resume that’s enabled him to get to nine NCAA Tournaments in 10 years, in addition to posting the best all-time winning percentage (.669) in Big East games.
For the second consecutive season, Pittsburgh will look for immediate help from a freshman in the interior. Highly regarded Mike Young will fill that role at power forward. A strong and relentless force with a nice scoring touch, Young must help offset the loss of Adams. His ability to step outside and score could add needed offensive punch.
Young will benefit by playing alongside experienced senior starters in forward Lamar Patterson and center Talib Zanna, the team’s top returning scorers. Patterson is the most versatile of the Panthers with his ability to play inside or on the perimeter at shooting guard. He fits the mold of the prototypical Pittsburgh player — tenacious on defense and on the boards with offensive versatility. Zanna, who moves to center from forward, must develop consistency to complement his impressive athleticism. He had great moments last season, but too often faded in the background.
A trio of intriguing newcomers will push for playing time immediately, including versatile 6-7 freshman Jamel Artis, 6-10 junior college transfer Joseph Uchebo and 6-9 Rutgers transfer Derrick Randall. Uchebo could be a factor at center as the season progresses.
Make no mistake, Pittsburgh is point guard James Robinson’s team. Only a sophomore, he spent much of last season deferring to graduate Tray Woodall, yet still led the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio. Robinson is smooth, self-assured and cerebral. His ability to set the tempo will be a necessity as Dixon plans to employ more of a run-and-gun style to tap into an athletic roster.
Robinson’s backcourt mate will be drawn from a committee of players, including junior Cameron Wright and sophomore Durand Johnson. Freshmen Chris Jones, Josh Newkirk and Detrick Mostella could also be in the mix. Johnson is the most intriguing of the bunch after leading Pittsburgh in 3-point shooting last season at 38 percent. He periodically provided a spark off the bench and showed unlimited range. The uber-quick Wright lacks Johnson’s scoring touch, but provides shut-down defense and relentless rebounding skills. Mostella, a late commitment who chose Pittsburgh over Georgetown, Miami (Fla.) and Oklahoma State, provides explosiveness (he’s a slam-dunk champ) with 3-point range. He could turn out to be a major recruiting.
The Pittsburgh roster will be dotted with seven new players, including redshirt freshman Chris Jones. Forward Michael Young should make the greatest impact as he moves into a starter’s role at power forward. Transfer Joseph Uchebo will provide needed size to the interior, while late commit Detrick Mostella, a natural scorer who originally planned to attend Oklahoma State, could take over at shooting guard. Mostella very well could end up being the gem of this voluminous incoming class.
Factoid: Pittsburgh is one of only seven schools to advance to the NCAA Tournament in 11 of the past 12 seasons. The others are Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Michigan State, Texas and Wisconsin.
This team, one Dixon likes a great deal, could follow suit. His formula for success is simple: Intense defense, aggressive rebounding and winning by attrition. Fresh off of signing a 10-year contract extension, Dixon will add a new wrinkle with the up-tempo style. This will appease a segment of Pittsburgh fans who believe Dixon’s perceived conservative approach inhibits players from flourishing offensively and fails to lure high-end recruits. His teams haven’t made it past the NCAA’s opening weekend since 2009.
Don’t expect this Pittsburgh squad to make a run to the Final Four, but a competitive season in the ACC and a 12th NCAA tourney berth in 13 years is realistic.