Is it âFinal Four or Bustâ for Jamie Dixon and his Pittsburgh basketball program? Hardly, but the ninth-year coach is aware of an antsy fan base. âI know everyone wants us to win a national championship,â says Dixon, whoâs advanced to three Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight during his tenure. âWe want it just as badly.â Pittsburgh was a legitimate Final Four contender last season after winning the Big East regular-season title and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but a deflating 71â70 loss to national finalist Butler in the Round of 32 left a stinging feeling. It was Pittsburghâs second consecutive defeat on the first weekend of the NCAAs. It also marked the second time in three years that the Panthers failed to advance to the Final Four, despite earning a No. 1 seed.
Dixonâs reaction? âWe wonât stop going after it, I can tell you that.â
Despite losing talented starters Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee from a 28â6 team, Dixon returns one of the top shooters in the nation in Ashton Gibbs and enough depth for the Panthers to extend their 10-year streak of 20 overall victories and no fewer than 10 Big East wins. And, as always, the sum is greater than the parts for these Panthers.
Key Panthers Stat: 3.2
Pitt's six losses last season came by an average of 3.2 points per game. The Panthers' most lopsided loss was by seven points to Tennessee.
Junior center Dante Taylor looks to fulfill the hype that surrounded his arrival three years ago as a McDonaldâs All-American. And even though heâs been more Chicken Nugget than Big Mac thus far, he was a force in a local Pro-Am league over the summer, unveiling a slimmed-down and more powerful frame. A relentless offensive rebounder, Taylor can be a legit 12-point, eight-rebound player. Should he emerge, Taylor and freshman Khem Birch, the top-rated Pittsburgh recruit in 25 years, could be a formidable 1-2 punch on the blocks. Birch, who will likely come off the bench, is a leaper who can change a game with his shot-blocking and rebounding prowess. He is the best pure athlete of the Dixon era and was rated a top-10 recruit according to several recruiting services.
At power forward, senior Nasir Robinson is a no-frills, undersized powerhouse who specializes in defense and rebounding, yet managed to score 21 points in a win over Syracuse. His toughness personifies Dixon-coached Pittsburgh teams.
An X-factor offensively could be high-flying J.J. Moore, who received limited playing time as a freshman last season. Moore attacks the rim frequently and possesses a scorerâs mentality. Veteran Lamar Patterson is another quality small forward, while the intriguing Talib Zanna provides a two-way threat off the bench.
Gibbs withdrew from the NBA Draft to improve on a skill set that features dead-eye shooting (he ranked third in the NCAA in 3-point percentage at 49.0), unquestioned leadership skills and an unrivaled competitive drive. Gibbs famously went shot-for-shot with Connecticutâs Kemba Walker in a Big East Tournament loss last season, going 10-of-13 from the field and 6-of-7 from 3-point range. He embraces the big stage, and that confidence rubs off on his teammates.
Junior point guard Tray Woodall is a brash Brooklyn native who confidently sets the tempo, evidenced by an assist-to-turnover ratio that ranked second in the Big East. He and Gibbs could form the best backcourt tandem in Dixonâs nine years. Freshman John Johnson, an aggressor whoâs been compared to former Villanova star Scottie Reynolds, could force Dixon to give him extended playing time, while redshirt freshmen Isaiah Epps and Cameron Wright provide quality depth.
Pittsburgh might be challenged to reach that elusive Final Four due to three new starters, but history reminds us that the Panthers will win. A lot. Consider: Dixon has won more games in his first eight years than any coach in history, averaging 27.0 per season. He also is the only active coach to lead his team to at least one victory in each of the past six NCAA Tournaments.
Much of Dixonâs past success has been achieved with good, but not great talent. That is changing, though, with top-notch recruits like Birch, Taylor and Gibbs now dotting the roster. The program is climbing closer to elite status with each successful season, though Dixon and the Pittsburgh fan base realize that the true breakthrough arrives when a Final Four is achieved. This version of the Panthers isnât likely to get there, but never count them out.
Big East Prediction: 4th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16