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2015-16 Pitt basketball team preview

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We're still very much in football mode, but with the men's basketball season here tonight, a look at this year's team seems appropriate, at the very least.

This offseason, it seems we've talked so much about the various players on this year's roster. But just in case you've put that on the back burner, here's a look at Jamie Dixon's 2015-16 squad as we head into tonight's big season opener against Gonzaga.

Guards

Pitt had quite a shakeup in the backcourt in the offseason. Gone are several pieces, including last year's starting shooting guard Cameron Wright. Wright never had the season that most of us hoped for last year, but was at least a solid defensive presence. Also gone is one of the top reserves in would-be junior Josh Newkirk. Newkirk was another player that struggled for the team last year, which was unexpected after a quality freshman campaign in 2013-14. After saying he wanted to be closer to his east coast home, he transferred to Indiana raising a lot of eyebrows. And the reported 'dream come true' statement didn't exactly help smooth things over, either.

The bad news is that the Panthers lose some experience there. Wright was a senior and played heavily for three seasons. Newkirk was a sparkplug off the bench that, last year's struggles notwithstanding, was capable of giving players a breather and scoring some points. The good news, however, is that Dixon has replaced them with quality additions. Things weren't all great on the backcourt front. Pitt swung and missed, for example, on transfer Sterling Gibbs. But the Panthers did manage to add several nice pieces here.

First there's four-star incoming recruit Damon Wilson. Wilson chose the Panthers over Georgia Tech and others and figures to get onto the court this season to be an immediate contributor. Then there's Sterling Smith, a transfer from Coppin State, who played heavily there, averaging about 30 minutes per game over the past two years. Smith is a solid scorer (he averaged 13.9 ppg last year) and in the mold of other Pitt guards in the past, a very good rebounder (4.9 boards per game last year). Rounding out the new additions is the intriguing Jonathan Milligan. Milligan was a late grab for Pitt and comes from Kilgore Junior College. He drew interest in the offseason from several major programs, including Tennessee and NC State. Milligan is a scorer with some three-point ability and should improve the athleticism of the backcourt.

Beyond the new guys, though, there are several other key returnees. James Robinson returns as the team's starting point guard and will run the offense. While he may have peaked, returnees Chris Jones and, in particular, Cameron Johnson, should be improved. Those three should account for a good amount of minutes and with the three new guys as well, Pitt's backcourt should be better, despite the losses of Wright and Newkirk - maybe even significantly better.

Forwards

The forwards are there are where there's the most stability - though we don't quite know where some of these guys will play. Jamel Artis, Michael Young, Sheldon Jeter, and Ryan Luther all return. Where exactly they fit, though, is anybody's guess.

Earlier this offseason, it looked as if Young would get a shot to play mostly at power forward. That may change, however, depending if the center spot (we'll get to that in a minute) can be effectively manned without him there. It also, too, could depend on what happens to Jeter, who looks to be ready for increased playing time. Pitt could force Young back to center and go with a forward combo of Jeter and Artis. Alternatively, Pitt could slide Young down to power forward and move Artis down to small forward.

Regardless of the combination, Pitt looks talented here. And if Young and Artis are the forwards and can play closer to their natural positions of power forward and small forward, that should help tremendously in terms of matchups. At 6'9", Young remains undersized at center and is really better suited if he can play a little more away from the basket.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of Luther this year. He got some early playing time last season, but was then shut down for the year. One dimension he adds is an ability to play on the perimeter. In his limited time on the court last year, he was 5-11 from three-point range and gives Pitt a big man that is a natural shooter.

The lone loss at forward was the somewhat erratic Durand Johnson. While Johnson was an effective scorer off the bench when healthy, he didn't play at all last season and missed half of the previous year with an injury. He just hasn't been a big contributor to the program and because of that and all of the returning players with another year of experience, this group should be improved as well.

Centers

It sounds like a broken record at this point, but the Panthers could be better at center as well. If Young ends up here, he should be an improved player. After that, it's a game of replacements.

Pitt loses really nothing else of significance in the middle. Joseph Uchebo, who left the program in the offseason along with mystery man Tyrone Haughton, only got into five of the team's final 15 games - and played a total of 13 minutes. Derrick Randall, now graduated, played only double figures in minutes twice in the team's last 20 games. And while the team did turn to walk-on Aron Phillips-Nwankwo at times, he was largely unseen playing only sparingly as well.

The Panthers will replace that trio with a pair of experienced big men transfers in Rafael Maia and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa. Neither is a star but they figure to contribute much more to the team than their predecessors. Maia has averaged nearly 30 minutes per game over his last three seasons at Brown while Nelson-Ododa has averaged about 25 minutes per game at Richmond the past two years. They should be more helpful than last year's centers not named Michael Young if only by default. Again, neither is a star, but both appear to be capable bodies that can rebound and defend a little.

Also potentially in the mix is transfer Rozelle Nix. The plans are to redshirt him, but if Pitt gets shorthanded here, he could be an option to play.

Schedule

If the Panthers are to make the NCAA Tournament, they should be plenty tested by the time they get there. In the non-conference, Pitt faces ranked Purdue and Gonzaga teams, as well as a Davidson squad that should be decent. And in the ACC, there are matchups with a slew of difficult opponents, including ranked North Carolina, Duke, Notre Dame, and Virginia teams. Throw in a pair of games against both Syracuse and Louisville and, well, things aren't going to be all that easy.

Prognosis

The national projections on Pitt aren't very high right now. But as I said recently when the team was ranked tenth in the ACC preseason poll, much of the predictions at this stage of the game are based on how programs fared last year and what seniors they return. Pitt had a down season last year and returns only Robinson. But as stated above, the Panthers are better at each of the three units and with a talented group of newcomers, have every bit of what it should take to make the NCAA Tournament.

That said, Pitt faces a bear of a schedule. It's quite possible that the team is good but not good enough to secure the quality wins they need to sneak into the field. Still, last year's team won 19 games and realistically only needed a few more wins to likely get into the Big Dance. I like their chances to do that this year with an improved squad.

What do you think about this year's season? Vote below in the poll.

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