The Pittsburgh Panthers are the latest team to be featured in our series of ACC Basketball previews to help get you ready for the 2014-15 season.
We’re going in alphabetical order through every team in the new-look ACC, but we’ll be excluding Duke – seeing as how the Blue Devils already receive a fair amount of coverage on this site.
If you’ve missed any of our previous previews, I encourage you to check them out to get an idea of the landscape around the ACC. We’ve already covered Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, N.C. State, North Carolina and Notre Dame.
The Panthers have a lot of new faces this season, but Jamie Dixon has proven himself very capable of incorporating new players into his system every year.
2013-14 Record: Overall – 26-10 | ACC – 11-7 (5th Place)
Games against Duke this season: Monday, January 19 at Duke
Pittsburgh got off to a fantastic start to last season and was 16-1 on January 18 when it traveled to face an undefeated Syracuse team in the Carrier Dome. The Panthers lost a very competitive, physical game against the Orange, but many viewed it as a “good” loss that proved they were a legitimate contender in the ACC. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when Duke came in to Pittsburgh and knocked off the Panthers in what was arguably the most complete game of the season by the Blue Devils that we saw some chinks in the armor.
After the loss to Duke, Pitt was an up-and-down team through the rest of the regular season and had to struggle to win close games against inferior opponents. And for some strange reason, the Panthers struggled at home, going only 4-5 in ACC play on their home court.
However, Jamie Dixon’s team rebounded nicely in the postseason and had an impressive run through the ACC Tournament. Pitt knocked off Wake Forest and North Carolina before falling to Virginia in the ACC Semifinals in a slugfest. The Panthers then had a dominating win over Colorado in their opening round game of the NCAA Tournament before being eliminated by No. 1 seed Florida.
Last season’s team was led by Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna. Both players were redshirt seniors who were perfect for Jamie Dixon’s physical system. Patterson was the versatile forward who led the team in scoring while Zanna was a beast in the paint. Zanna was a huge reason the Panthers had great success in the ACC Tournament, as he averaged 17 points and 13 rebounds during Pitt’s three games.
Another key to Pitt’s success was the steady play of point guard James Robinson, who led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and will be relied upon heavily again this season.
Key Players: Cameron Wright, James Robinson
As the leading returning scorer on this team, Cameron Wright will be a critical component of Pittsburgh’s offense. He’ll miss the first few weeks of the season as he recovers from a broken foot he suffered in late-September, but the Panthers will need him to quickly incorporate himself back into the flow of the game in order to be ready for ACC play. He’s the long, athletic player who usually has success in Jamie Dixon’s system, and as a senior, it’s time for him to step up and be a leader in the program.
There isn’t much flash to James Robinson’s game, but he’s the type of mature, steady point guard who is irreplaceable in college basketball. Robinson averaged 4.1 assists per game last season while only averaging one turnover and his decision making is a big reason why the Panthers were competitive in nearly every game.
X-Factor: Michael Young & Josh Newkirk
Michael Young was a highly-touted recruit who struggled last season as a freshman. He’ll need to step up to make up for the loss of Talib Zanna in the frontcourt. Young appears to be the most likely candidate in the long line of physical post players who’ve been part of the Pittsburgh program over the years.
If this were football, Josh Newkirk would be described as the exciting playmaker who coaches get the ball to in space so that he can create. Newkirk might be the most explosive player on the roster for the Panthers and the sophomore guard from Raleigh will certainly be motivated to prove he belongs against the other highly-acclaimed guards around the ACC. There’s a playground aspect to his game that makes him a very intriguing player to watch. He’ll also be counted on to step up while Cameron Wright is sidelined due to injury.
Do you know the last time Jamie Dixon failed to win at least 20 games as the head coach at Pittsburgh? If you guessed a year, you’d be wrong. It’s never happened! That’s a remarkable accomplishment for a guy who’s been at a program for 11 years. It’s even more impressive that 10 of those years were spent as part of a loaded Big East Conference.
Can this Pittsburgh team win 20 games? It’s happened every year for the past decade, so it feels like a safe prediction to say it will happen again.
They’ll have to earn it because the league did Pitt no favors with conference scheduling this season. Road trips to Duke, Louisville, Virginia and Syracuse? Ouch.
To me, the biggest questions are about Cameron Wright establishing himself as a go-to scorer and finding guys who will step up in the paint to replace Talib Zanna.
If Pitt can do those things, Jamie Dixon is certainly a good enough coach to get this group back to the NCAA Tournament.