In chess, the player with the greater analytical mind, the one who can think multiple moves ahead, often has the advantage. While every game can unfold differently, the pieces are always the same. A knight can't become a bishop and a king can't gain the range of movement as a queen. In basketball, that's not how things work.
Yes, only five players on each team can occupy the court at any one time. However, the players that comprise each team aren't on equal footing. The Duke Blue Devils freshman trio of center Jahlil Okafor, forward Justise Winslow, and point guard Tyus Jones is better than any three players that the Pittsburgh Panthers currently have on their roster. At least in terms of talent.
Does anyone actually dispute this? Well yes, because there seems to be an endless stream of Pitt fans who believe this team underachieved. Furthermore, some fans have even gone so far as to utter the 'same ole' Panthers phrase that's usually reserved for when Pitt doesn't make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Now we're going to start using it when they don't advance deep into their conference tournament? Really?
The reality is the Panthers aren't a very talented team and were anything but a traditional Pitt team under head coach Jamie Dixon. Can you name the last time a Dixon coached team started the season without a senior in the starting lineup? I'll wait. Oh right, that's never happened until this season, Dixon's 12th at the Petersen Events Center. Sure, senior guard Cameron Wright would have started the opening game against the Niagara Purple Eagles, but a broken left foot kept him out of the first seven games of the season. Wright also missed a few other games along the way.
The suspension of junior forward Durand Johnson certainly didn't help. Nor did the fact that the 2014 recruiting class was arguably the worst ever under Dixon. The teams best player, in my opinion, sophomore forward Mike Young, has barely played one minute at his natural position - power forward. Fellow sophomore forward Jamel Artis, the teams most polished offensive player, is also at his best at power forward. Although, the seeds are there that he could develop into a very good wing player going forward.
How many more wins would you have given this team when the schedule first came out? The loss to the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at a 'neutral' site and the road loss to the Virginia Tech Hokies are the only ones that I would have penciled in. But would winning either of those games have changed the Panthers position with the loss to the NC State Wolfpack the other night? My guess is no, it wouldn't have.
Even that nice little stretch there at the end of January to mid-February came on the heels of three straight losses, including the OT loss against Virginia Tech. Look, this season wasn't a complete train wreck. I am not saying that it wasn't disappointing or frustrating at times. With that said, given the circumstances and the players at their disposal, this Pitt team accomplished about as much as anyone could have reasonably expected.
Coaching isn't synonymous with winning. Heck, even good coaching doesn't always result in wins. Talent matters, and Dixon has done a fine job coaching getting the most, for now, out of the players he has given the circumstances. Would two or three wins in the NIT do anything to move the needle? That's debatable.
Personally, I believe the expectations for this team should be viewed within the context of the makeup of the roster and the fact that it's year two in the ACC. It's unreasonable to expect a team like the 2008-2009 team to trot onto the court night after night, year after year. But it's not unreasonable to think that it can't happen again, especially when Dixon and his coaching staff have developed some great players over the course of their four-year careers. This wasn't a lost season, it was a season of development.
It's hard to be excited over a 19-14 season and a chance at one home game in the NIT. But in terms of where players usually are in their sophomore seasons under Dixon, the Panthers are ahead of the curve. If Pitt returns to the AP Top-25 during the 2016-2017 season, perhaps all will be forgiven. Let's just hope that some fans remember that the framework for that success started this season.