It took Pittsburgh little time to make a resounding impression in its ACC debut. The Panthers opened with a 16–1 record, including 4–0 in the league, and raised eyebrows from Tobacco Road to Tallahassee.
Then, they dropped six of their next 10 and eventually lost in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament to top-seeded Florida. This is not to suggest that the season was a failure. Far from it. Pittsburgh went 26–10, placed fifth in the ACC and won two games in the conference tournament.
The goal moving forward, though, is to replicate last season’s brisk beginning, then to maintain the standard. The good news is that three starters and six of the top eight scorers return from a team for which young players emerged during a late-season 5–1 stretch. Pittsburgh will feature only two scholarship seniors this season.
“We started to grow up, to figure it out,” junior guard James Robinson says.
There will be challenges with the departures of leading scorer Lamar Patterson and leading rebounder Talib Zanna, but it is nothing veteran coach Jamie Dixon hasn’t seen before. Dixon is masterful at making the sum better than the parts, which explains why he’s been to 10 NCAA tournaments in 11 years.
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Pittsburgh’s big men have promise and potential. The question is: Can they maximize it? Sophomore Mike Young, who moves from power forward to center, is the key. He displayed a refined interior skill set last season but wasn’t at full capacity due to a stress fracture in his lower back. An offseason weight-loss regimen and a mini growth spurt to 6-9-plus must pay dividends to soften the loss of Zanna. He’ll get help from senior Derrick Randall and junior Joseph Uchebo, but Young, a tireless defender, needs to emerge.
One of Pittsburgh’s more intriguing players is sophomore power forward Jamel Artis. His inside-outside talents emerged in the later stages of the season, with 11 points and seven rebounds vs. Virginia and 13 and seven against North Carolina. A potential matchup problem with an ability to step away from the basket, Artis could flourish as the season progresses.
At small forward, sophomore Sheldon Jeter is an enticing mystery. Jeter, who began his career at Vanderbilt, is a highly regarded talent who offers the versatility to play multiple positions.
Pittsburgh Panthers Facts & Figures
Last season: 26-10, 11-7 ACC
Postseason: NCAA round of 32
Consecutive NCAAs: 2
Coach: Jamie Dixon (288-96 at Pittsburgh, 126-64 Big East/ACC)
ACC Projection: Seventh
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
Robinson is the consummate delivery man. He ranked sixth nationally in assist-turnover ratio and possesses unquestioned command in setting the tempo. But here’s the rub: Pittsburgh needs more from the Bob Cousy Award finalist. He averaged just 7.6 points and rarely created his own shot. He must be a difference-maker in all facets if Pittsburgh is to evolve into an ACC contender.
Shooting guard Cameron Wright is raw at times but provides explosiveness and aggressiveness. He hit double figures 20 times and can stuff the stat sheet with his rebounding and passing. If Wright continues to ascend, the backcourt could be formidable.
A potential X-factor is change-of-pace speedster Josh Newkirk, a sophomore who was strong late in the season. He will give Dixon the option of using three-guard sets with his versatility. The purest scorer among the group is 6-6 junior Durand Johnson, a sharpshooter with unlimited range. He was averaging 8.8 points off the bench before a season-ending ACL/meniscus injury Jan. 11.
Despite Dixon’s success — he has a .750 winning percentage — he hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 in five years and missed the tourney altogether in ‘12. Because of this, the veteran coach finds himself in the midst of a conflicted fan base. Some are ecstatic that he’s put Pittsburgh basketball on the map over the past decade, while others believe he needs to raise the bar higher.
Dixon accepts all points of view. “We understand what the fans want. We expect the same for ourselves,” says Dixon, who’s been to three Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight. “It’s what we keep working for, reaching for.”
With the lack of a dominant star and uncertainty in the frontcourt, Dixon’s team will need time to jell. As always, he’ll coax maximum effort and results from his youthful group.
Will it be enough to land the Panthers back in the Sweet 16? The Elite Eight? Perhaps not, but another trip to the NCAA Tournament is more than realistic.
Of Pittsburgh’s four newcomers, Vanderbilt transfer Sheldon Jeter is expected to provide the most immediate impact. The sophomore averaged 5.5 points and 3.4 rebounds in his lone season in Nashville. Junior-college transfer Tyrone Haughton needs seasoning, but offers solid defensive skills around the rim. Combo-forward Ryan Luther offers versatility, as he can score from outside or in the paint. Late signee Cameron Johnson, a swingman, is a redshirt candidate.