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2014-15 Pitt team providing plenty of optimism for next year

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Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

This season isn't yet over, but judging by what we've seen from this Panthers' team lately, the basketball team is making it difficult to not get excited over what they can do next year.

No, looking ahead while bypassing this season isn't an option. Thanks to this weekend's win against North Carolina and a recent win against Notre Dame, these latest version of Panthers still have a chance to get into the NCAA Tournament. This isn't about jumping into a DeLorean and fast-forwarding eight or nine months to next year.

But judging by the way the team is starting to play, it's hard not to envision how good this team can be a year from now.

Pitt started off slowly this season and much of it can be attributed to youth. But next year, that all changes. Instead of primarily playing only two upperclassmen. The team should return a whopping eight of their top nine scorers, and six of those players will be juniors or seniors.

It's not only that the players get a year older, but it's the fact that the squad will remain largely unchanged. The big departure is Cameron Wright, but he has been missing with injuries for a good chunk of this season and isn't a flat out superstar. His loss certainly helps defensively, but overall, Pitt isn't going to be replacing a ton. His scoring should be made up by returning senior Durand Johnson, who returns from suspension. The Panthers also will add recruits Damon Wilson and Rozelle Nix, who could factor in immediately - Wilson due to talent and Nix based on need in the middle. Overall, the swap of Wright for Johnson, Wilson, and Nix is more than acceptable.

In terms of talent, you have to like the steps forward both Mike Young and Jamel Artis have taken this season. As sophomores, both are already good players and each could develop into bonafide stars. Chris Jones has stepped up to give the team a three-point threat (albeit, shooting about 35% from beyond the arc, one that needs to improve his accuracy a little) and Sheldon Jeter is proving to not only be a player that will continue to compete for minutes, but could become a real offensive threat. When you add in true freshmen Cameron Johnson and Ryan Luther that both had a taste of playing and will have had a year in the program, this team is better positioned to do good things.

How much James Robinson and even Josh Newkirk will improve next year remains up in the air, but both will contribute and Robinson in particular is a guy that is capable to big games and brings a steadying influence in running the offense for a fourth season. Newkirk has been shakier and hasn't improved nearly as much as most of us thought (hey, remember this?), but just because he hasn't improved at the rate of Young and Artis, it doesn't mean he's not capable of a breakout year. He's still, after all, only a true sophomore right now.

Another point is that Pitt could have guys in even better roles next year. Young has been forced to play center by default because the team just hasn't gotten much from Joseph Uchebo and Derrick Randall. We don't know what we'll have in Nix until he gets on the court, but if he's serviceable and Young could play at power forward (with Jamel Artis at small forward), he'd be even more comfortable. Young's quickness has helped him against bigger centers, but his size still hampers him somewhat at both ends of the court against taller guys.

What Pitt gets from the collection of Uchebo and Tyrone Haughton (if both stick with the program) is anybody's guess. But either way, they're not going to negatively impact the team.

There's a lot to look for this season and the Panthers are playing well down the stretch. But if you ask me, next year's team will have the chance to be exceptional.

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