On Monday, Jim wrote a nice breakdown of Pitt's freshmen while looking ahead to next season. With all of the moving parts, I think this year ultimately had to be considered a success for the Panthers' basketball team. The team won 26 games, competed well in the ACC, and not only made the NCAA Tournament, but won a game in the process. All in all, not bad for a team that was practically rebuilding.
A lot of fans will be hoping for more with the team's freshmen a year older, but the fact is that this team is still two years away from making significant noise, in my opinion.
It's true that Pitt's young team gets a year older. All three of the true freshmen, Mike Young, Jamel Artis, and Josh Newkirk, all not only played this year, but significantly. Each is battle-tested and should all be better next year. The Panthers also get back sixth man Durand Johnson, whose ability to connect from three-point range gives the team another scoring threat. Also add in redshirt freshman Chris Jones, who saw significant action with Johnson's injury.
The older players should be improved, too. James Robinson didn't take a huge step forward this year, but his shooting certainly improved. Cam Wright struggled at times, but was significantly better this year, too. Some will want to see Josh Newkirk start, but I don't see it. He may get more minutes (and I say 'may' because I'm not even sure that's guaranteed), but to expect him to supplant either Robinson or Wright as the starter likely isn't realistic. Newkirk played well down the stretch, but I simply don't see it at this point.
Despite those improvements to the current roster, Pitt has three major problems heading into next year. First, they're trying to replace the team's two best players. Not only were Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna the team's top stars, but it really wasn't debatable. There were nights when Wright or Robinson did more than expected, but Patterson and Zanna were the keys to the season. Without both of those guys, Pitt starts off at a severe disadvantage.
The other issue is one we've seen before - a lot of new players stepping into key roles. Regardless of whether or not they start, Tyrone Haughton and Sheldon Jeter should both get big minutes next year. Incoming freshman Shaquille Doorson also could see time at center and there's also forward Ryan Luther to consider. There's a good chance that three of those guys get worked into the rotation (Doorson, perhaps, because Derrick Randall has looked so underwhelming at times) and Pitt again will be looking at several new players coming in to make an impact.
Lastly, this is still going to be a very young team. The four freshmen will be a year older ... but they're still only going to be sophomores. If Doorson and/or Luther play, those are two more freshmen getting minutes. Pitt will again be relying on numerous upperclassmen to fill key roles. Unless you've got top recruits, that's usually not the way to make deep NCAA Tournament runs.
This article isn't meant to be a downer looking a year ahead - rather, it's to temper expectations. A solid year for Pitt would be to again reach the NCAA Tournament and perhaps win a game. However, more than that shouldn't be expected.
Not until 2015-16, anyway.
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