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The Freshmen will be Sophomores: Can Pitt basketball freshmen take a big step forward in 2014-15

Can Pitt's promising group of freshmen take the "next step" ?

Pitt is coming off a good, but not great season. The Panthers won 26 games, participated in the NCAA tournament for the 12th time in 13 years, and transitioned from the Big East to the ACC with a 5th place finish. All of those were positive signs. The negative signs were more of a "what could have been?" type feeling. The Panthers were so close to winning multiple games against their top competition, that their 9th seed could have been considerably higher and perhaps they would still be playing this weekend. "Woulda, coulda, shoulda" is the expression, but nevertheless it is time to start looking towards 2014-15.

Pitt probably reached their ceiling without having a true center on the roster and with their 6th man sidelined with an injury. The Panthers clearly did not have the firepower that Florida had, but do they might have the talent skill need for future seasons? I think they do, and it starts with the group of freshmen that will now be sophomores. The quartet of Michael Young, Josh Newkirk, Jamel Artis, and Chris Jones played key roles on this team, and flashed signs of stardom at times. The hope is that their careers can grow together and that they can be a special group by their senior year.

Michael Young started all 36 games for Pitt this season and they came with mixed results. Young averaged 6 points and 4 rebounds a game - at times he looked like a true freshman but at other times, he looked like a power forward capable of big things in his career. Young finished the year with a back injury that may have slowed him down a bit, but during the season we got to see some impressive things from the Duquesne, PA native. Perhaps the 13 points against NC State in the ACC opener, or the nine-point eight-rebound game against Jabari Parker and Duke were telling signs of the player to come. We know Young is very good at the free throw line (81%), we know he can step out and knock down a three-pointer (10-38), and with his 6'8" 245-pound frame, he looks like a versatile big man Jamie Dixon can use in a variety of ways. Young is a former top 100 recruit and the ability is there for him to grow into a strong player for this program. With Talib Zanna moving on, I expect to see more offense run through Young a little more in 2014-15.

Josh Newkirk is probably the most intriguing player in the program right now and could possibly find a way into the starting lineup next season. Newkirk is an explosive quick guard that has to rank towards the top of the country in overall athletic ability for point guards. He averaged 17 minutes a game and got better down the stretch run for the Panthers. Newkirk reached double figures in scoring in four ACC games, including a monster 20-point game against NC State, in which he knocked down five three-pointers. He had an impressive seven-assist game against Loyola Marymount earlier in the season, and showed up with a strong ten-point five-assist game against Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament. Newkirk probably won't unseat James Robinson from the point guard spot, but as we saw two seasons ago, Dixon started both Robinson and Tray Woodall, and perhaps a new lineup configuration is in order to accommodate Newkirk.

Jamel Artis averaged 15 minutes per contest, and at times outplayed the starter, Michael Young. Artis almost seems like Newkirk in a way, simply because he looked like a player at times that Dixon could carve out a starting spot to get him on the floor more often. Artis was just shy of averaging five points a game and only averaged two rebounds, but a lot of what he does is hard to explain in simple statistical numbers. Artis appears to have a strong "Basketball IQ" on the offensive side of the ball - he knows where to be, knows to make the extra pass, and makes plays that sometimes cannot be statistically analyzed. Two of his best showings came against Virginia (13 points 7 rebounds) and North Carolina (13 and 7). Like Young, Artis is capable of making three-pointers, and shows good versatility with his 6'7" 230-pound frame. Artis plays that role that Nasir Robinson and Jaron Brown played in thisPitt program and he does it with a bigger body. He makes you wonder if they can start him at power forward and Young at center? Artis could also play at small forward. However it shakes out, expect more than 15 minutes a game from him next season.

Chris Jones averaged just seven minutes a game in his redshirt freshman season. The 6'6" wing from New Jersey had trouble cracking the lineup, even with Durand Johnson's injury. Still, Jones has some tools that makes him a player ready to take a step forward in this program. Jones has the frame and athleticism to excel, and perhaps another off season will do him good. Dixon always seems to start making progress with guys like him in their third year, and that could be the case again. Jones did come in and knock down a big three on the road against North Carolina, and provided seven points against Florida State. Sometimes fans liked to get on his case, but he can take a step forward next year and be a viable option off the bench.

It's early, but I think Pitt has similar potential to this year. They can be a top 5-6 team in the ACC, and should very well make the tournament again. With this core of now sophomores, the program's future is bright. Newkirk looks like he can be a special player, Young can be a legitimate post presence in the ACC, and Artis can be the type of player that helped fuel Pitt runs of the past. Young should be a starter again, but the speculation can begin whether Newkirk and Artis can find their way into the lineup themselves. Add incoming sophomore recruit/transfer Sheldon Jeter to the mix and Pitt appears to be well set for a few seasons.

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