Pitt's having a season that is commonly being referred to as "down." The question, though, is 'why'?
Some common opinions for the struggles have been inexperience, youth, a lack of chemistry, and no real scoring threat. While those all are good reasons, in my opinion, the answer comes down to one phase of college athletics sometimes overlooked by the casual fan: recruiting. While Jamie Dixon has been praised for turning frogs into princes for the past decade, getting big recruits is something that has got to happen in order for this program to continue its rise to prominence.
To figure out where Jamie and his staff went wrong, I started to look at the rosters of some other perennial powerhouses. I wanted to take a look at the notion that the team is simply too young to win.
Most teams play approximately nine or ten players in any given game. When considering the year (freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior), or experience, of each player on six different teams (Pitt, Syracuse, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky), Pitt is surprisingly right on par. The two outliers in this equation are Kansas (seven upperclassmen) and Kentucky (six underclassmen), but UNC, Syracuse, and Pitt fall almost exactly in line with two freshman, three sophomores, two juniors, and two seniors (Syracuse has four sophomores). The point is that if other programs are having success playing young and inexperienced teams as Pitt is, the problem must lie somewhere else.
It's my belief that the problem is with the players being recruited. Dixon's focus has been on finding the best players available that fit his system - tough, defensive, and hard-nosed team players. For the past eight seasons, that philosophy has worked incredibly well and can continue to work as long as the players are productive. This season, though, that system isn't working very well because the players simply aren't nearly as good as they were expected to be. Simply put, there have been some misses on the recruiting end.
Going down Pitt's roster and starting with seniors, Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson have obviously panned out. They're not only talented, but put the team first. Gibbs has been off lately but he just can't create for himself. He's a set shooter that can run off screens and as such, he's going to be prone to struggling with his shot ... we just didn't expect it to be this much. Nas plays much bigger than he really is (6' 6") and is a master at rebounding and penetrating zone defenses.
Then there are the juniors, Tray Woodall and Dante Taylor. Wodall made huge strides at the beginning of the year and started turning into a very good player. He's not only a great ball handler, but contributes as a scorer. His injury has hurt the team in both of those areas and Pitt is really struggling without him. Taylor, on the other hand, has been a 'miss' when it comes to player development and progression. Dixon's first McDonald's All-American doesn't seem to have what it takes to make that jump from an average college player to an elite one. He has shown some glimpses of pure athleticism and skill, but he's really had a hard time breaking through and becoming consistent.
Lamar Patterson, J.J. Moore, and Talib Zanna are the sophomores seeing the most time. None of them were expected to be a flat out star that would come to the Pete and dominate, but all have fallen a bit short of expectations. Patterson and Moore have both shown some spark on offense, but their ball-handling and decision-making skills just haven't developed yet. The coaching staff really needs to move them both along a little quicker in their development and Moore, in particular, needs to become more of a consistent performer.
Zanna is a bit of an interesting case. It seems like he has all the skills to become an athletic big man. Last year, he had some impressive non-conference games, but his production slipped once Big East play arrived. This year, though, his play has generally gotten better and I think Dixon's made the right move in starting him alongside Nas right now.
Then come the freshman. After the whole Khem Birch debacle, this team is left with three freshmen - John Johnson, Cameron Wright (RS), Isaiah Epps, Malcolm Gilbert, and Durand Johnson. Durand Johnson hasn't played and Gilbert and Epps have played sparingly, so it's hard to judge them. It is worth noting, though, that while Epps is young, so far he hasn't turned out to be the player advertised. John Johnson has looked good at times, but still is finding his way around a bit offensively. On defense, though, John looks great and will continue to get better.
It's really early in Wright's career, but he hasn't shown much of anything just yet. He did play well at Syracuse this week, but has looked incredibly lost much of the season. And with John Johnson only a freshman, 2012 recruit James Robinson, and sophomores Patterson and Moore all potentially seeing time in the backcourt, Wright seems could find it difficult to get minutes. His biggest issue is that, right now, anyway, he doesn't have any of the intangibles that make him more valuable than any of the other players on the roster (three-point specialist, rim rocker, great defender, etc).
None of these classes stand out to me, to be honest. Some players have improved, but I haven't seen a great deal f improvement as a whole. The argument could be made that while players have become more comfortable on the floor with their decision-making and other things that come with more playing time, their skill sets (scoring, passing, defending, etc.) haven't actually improved that much.
Hopefully these guys will continue to get comfortable on the floor and start to transform into legitimate Division 1 starters. The good news is that with Steven Adams and James Robinson coming in next season, the recruiting is looking up, though. But as history has proven so far with Dante Taylor and to a lesser degree, J.J. Moore, highly-touted recruits aren't always guarantees.
Dixon has no doubt been looking for talented players that have the ability to take over a game, but I think that's an area Pitt has to continue to explore, despite the defection of Birch. Maybe he also needs to look at his coaching staff's ability to make these recruits into better players. Either way, something has quietly been failing in Pitt's system the past few years. It's just finally been brought to light with the team's recent struggles. Dixon is still a top coach in college basketball, but he's still got some work to do to get to the next level.
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