With such a down season, one huge misconception of Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon is that he can't recruit big time talent. But when it boils down to it, the bigger problem that the Panthers have had is recruiting players that have been blatant misses and/or not worked out.
The 'Jamie can't recruit big time players - that's why Pitt sucks this year' mantra may be a popular one, but it isn't really accurate. When you look at even Dixon's recent past, his staffs have managed to land several highly-touted players. Here's a breakdown of the stars that Pitt has landed over the past three years (excluding 2014 because it's way too early to tell who might work out there):
2011 - Khem Birch: Birch was a legit five-star player and top ten player nationally. He still went on to a very good collegiate career and could be a pro player. While he ended up leaving Pitt, the fact is that Dixon and his staff did a good enough job recruiting him to land one of the nation's best players. Birch, as I mentioned earlier this year, was a D-League All-Star this season along with Talib Zanna.
2012 - Steven Adams: Same for Adams, who was just as regarded as Birch. Adams, of course, went to the pros after only one season, but that can't be blamed on Dixon. Again, the fact remains that Dixon found Adams (through a relationship with a New Zealand coach) before anybody else really had and sold him on the program enough to come to the Panthers. Not many coaches out of the elite teams like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, etc. are landing back-to-back five-star centers, yet Pitt managed to.
2012 - James Robinson: Go ahead and laugh at this one if you feel the need. Even I've pointed out the little amount of growth that Robinson's offensive game has had in his three years at Pitt. Two things, though. First, he is a three-year starting point guard - something you just don't see most of the time. Also, this was a kid that was heavily pursued. He was a Top 60 player according to Rivals with tons of offers from schools like Notre Dame, Georgetown, Maryland, and many others. The fact that Pitt got him was a very big deal.
2013 - Detrick Mostella: Almost forgot about him, right? Mostella was a Top 50 star who Pitt landed after he decommitted from Oklahoma State. Unfortunately for Pitt, rumors are that he didn't qualify academically and he then went on to Tennessee, where he's started some games for them this year. Another one that didn't work out in Pitt's favor, but the Panthers also initially beat out others for his services.
2013 - Mike Young: Young was a four-star/Top 100ish recruit that had offers from UConn and Florida, among others. Pitt won his services and in his second-year, he's now a potential star.
2013 - Jamel Artis: Artis didn't come as highly-ranked as Mostella or Young, but is already flourishing and may be the team's best player. And like Young, as a true sophomore, already has the look of a star. He and Young really helped make this only a down season and not a catastrophic one.
Again, I'm not pulling out my crystal ball here and to judge the star ability of the guys they landed in last year's class wouldn't be right. Realizing that it was one of the Dixon's lower-rated classes, Pitt didn't pull in any stars in terms of the rankings. But while we can look at the class made up of all three-star guys and declare there isn't a superstar, Artis was a three-star player, too, and look at how he's developed. 2014 is off limits (mostly ... I'll get to that in a minute) until we get at least a year to see those guys.
The belief is often held that the only way Pitt previously landed star players was through former assistant Barry Rohrssen. Rohrssen had in fact landed some key players for Pitt over the years (as well as a number of duds, FWIW), but wasn't around for any of these players, with the exception of Mostella, who was a late addition. The fact is that Dixon and his staff managed to reel in several stars on their own.
So if Pitt has landed big time talent, what's the problem? First, as noted above, some of it's not worked out for whatever reason. Mostella reportedly didn't qualify academically. Birch came to Pitt but didn't like it, ultimately calling out the selfishness of teammates, among other things. Adams went to the NBA. Robinson has been good, but not a great offensive player. Is some of that Dixon's fault? Maybe a little if you want to blame him for not maintaining a better relationship with Birch, though, it's difficult to get a handle on what really happened there or that Robinson can't shoot. But overall, Pitt has also not had great luck.
The bigger issue, though, is that the Panthers have flat out missed on several kids.
2011 - Malcolm Gilbert: The first in a long line of big men that didn't work out in this era. Gilbert jumped ship as Adams came on board and for the opportunity to play with his brother at tiny Fairfield. The biggest surprise was that even at a smaller school and a 6'11" frame, he's barely made an impact. Gilbert played about ten minutes per game this year averaging fewer than a single point per contest, while somehow managing to shoot under 27% from the field. Again - 6'11", guys.
2011 - John Johnson: Johnson played a year at Pitt before transferring Penn State, and was another guy that didn't pan out. He struggled to find his way getting playing time as a true freshman at Pitt and in three years, has struggled to find his shot as well. He's only been about a 40% lifetime shooter and that just doesn't cut it.
2013 - Joseph Uchebo: Uchebo came to Pitt with high hopes, but it's clear that his injury issues have limited him. Despite the team desperately needing help in the middle, he's barely been able to get off the bench in meaningful games. His addition was a huge swing and miss.
2013 - Derrick Randall: Randall was another big man that Dixon took a chance on, primarily out of need. He's managed to put together a small amount of plays but other than that, has really been a guy that didn't work out as well, largely riding the bench during his time at Pitt.
2014 - Tyrone Haughton: I know, I'm breaking my rule here by adding in a 2014 player. Sue me. But I'm throwing Haughton in simply because he's a JUCO player and older than the two true freshmen. Because of that, Haughton was expected to get onto the court and immediately help this season. The fact that he had to take a redshirt while Pitt had no help in the middle makes it hard to keep him out of here.
None of this even accounts for Durand Johnson from the 2011 class, who has about a year and half of playing time despite the fact that he'll be a senior next year. A near season-long injury followed by a season-long suspension puts him close to the 'miss' category right now, though he has time to redeem himself with a year to go.
Dixon's biggest crime hasn't been the failure to land star talent - it's been whiffing on guys that didn't belong.
All schools miss on guys - let's be clear there. To pretend as if Pitt's barometer for judging talent is in a league of its own in terms of missing on guys isn't accurate. Still, when you combine the fact that they've struck out on several guys that haven't been able to help the team very much with their youth, it's pretty easy to see how they struggled this season.
And the misses, of course, tie in with the youth, too. While players like Gilbert and Johnson (who were admittedly not good players) would have been seniors this year, Pitt has been forced to bring in younger players in their place. Some that the team has brought in, such as Trey Zeigler and Randall, have been older transfers. But Pitt has lost several guys that would have been upperclassmen on the team if they had stuck around. The program is one that relies on stability and guys developing over the four years. They haven't had that lately and while they weathered last season with the development of Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, they didn't have that this year. Cameron Wright was the only player that came up through the system and finished his career here, and that just wasn't enough.
Pitt's problem hasn't been getting talent. We can argue that they've not gotten the five-star guys mostly reserved for the elite teams, but they didn't have that in the past when they were winning 25+ games a year, either. So when you lose guys that should grow with the system and are forced to not only suit up underclassmen, but rely on them to account for the bulk of the production, things get extremely difficult.
The good news is that things should be stabilizing. Whether a player or two from this season doesn't make it back is within the realm of possibility. But the Panthers will be returning four of their five starters, adding four-star point guard Damon Wilson to the mix, and hopefully getting back Durand Johnson from suspension. Instead of playing big roles, Pitt will have the luxury of allowing 2014-15 true freshmen Ryan Luther and Cameron Johnson to learn and get some minutes. 2016, should be even better with a ton of upperclassmen talent, assuming everyone returns.
Dixon and company have had some bad misses on recruits - there's really no denying that. But as they've proven with 2016 guard Mustapha Heron and, most recently, Corey Manigault a 247 four-star big man they landed on Monday, they can still bring in big-time guys. The narrative that says that Pitt doesn't attract star players is wrong. But all of the recent misses the team has had in recruiting coupled with the transfers really put the team in a bind and forced them into an unbelievably young roster this year.
And as we saw, that's simply something they couldn't afford.