Pittsburgh Basketball: Panthers' 5 Biggest Concerns Entering the Postseason

Matt PopchockContributor IIMarch 4, 2014

Pittsburgh Basketball: Panthers' 5 Biggest Concerns Entering the Postseason

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Perhaps, if they knew Wichita State would later accomplish an increasingly rare feat in the ever-evolving world of college basketball, the disappointment on the faces of those young men on Mar. 21, 2013 might have been assuaged.

    But the pain of postseason failure won't subside for the remaining members of last year's Pitt squad until it finds postseason success, which has become increasingly rare to the Panthers since their lightning-in-a-bottle Elite Eight berth in 2009.

    "It's definitely motivation. The heartbreak was crazy," redshirt senior forward Lamar Patterson said. "You never want to leave the [NCAA] Tournament that early, and I know what has to be done in order to do that."

    Patterson need not elaborate. Not that there's ever a convenient time to play poorly, but several Panthers, on their brief trip to Salt Lake City, picked the worst possible time for one of the worst possible efforts of their collegiate careers. The Lancaster, Pa., native, who shot 1-for-7 from the field that day, knows he is not exempt from that criticism.

    We, on the other hand, will elaborate, because much has to be done for this Pitt team to shed its label of mediocrity now that a substandard stretch of stretch-run play in its first ACC season has left it in limbo.

    The answers to the following five questions will decide the Panthers' fate.

1. Will Lamar Patterson Take Charge?

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Patterson is the offensive lynch pin of his team. It's become pretty evident, simply put, that Pitt will go as he goes.

    He has spent much of his senior campaign improving upon his own consistency. He ranks among the ACC's top five scorers, averaging 17.2 points per game, and he has reached double figures in all but two contests. He became the only player in school history to earn conference player-of-the-week honors three times in a single season, and at the outset of the conference slate he attracted attention as an under-the-radar ACC Player of the Year candidate.

    But in the past month or so, during which Pitt has struggled, Patterson has also left a lot of points on the floor. Since his 28-point outburst at Maryland on Jan. 25, which flirted with his career high, Patterson has shot under 40 percent in eight of ten games, and a combined 27 percent in potential resume-wrecking home losses to Duke, Virginia and Syracuse.

    These Panthers don't have an eventual NBA star. They need to hitch their star to Patterson's wagon, because he's the closest thing they have to a player who can carry his team and/or offset poor performance by the rest of it, as he demonstrated in laborious road wins over Miami and Notre Dame.

    And if he vanishes like he did against the Shockers, that star will fall abruptly.

2. Can They Get Back to Their Game?

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    Associated Press

    Monday was a microcosm of Pitt's late-season regression. It opened up a 13-point lead over North Carolina State with 3:37 remaining in the first half, but the Panthers, in building that lead, got into bad habits that ultimately cost them the lead and the game.

    Pitt ended the first half with zero offensive rebounds.

    Zero.

    It ended the game with two.

    Two.

    A Petersen Events Center record.

    "I don't know how we can get two offensive rebounds, and I don't know how we can come up with 23," said Dixon afterward, sounding as flabbergasted as any who knows he constantly preaches rebounding as his primary prerequisite for success.

    "I don't think they had great positioning, we just didn't come up with anything. We have been out-rebounded in half of our games. That is what I say constantly, and at the end of the day, it's because we get out-rebounded. This was the case again," Dixon added. "From the first loss of the year, and we have eight of them, we focus so much on the losses, but we don't seem to get the message across that the rebounding is what comes short."

    While the Panthers were getting beaten badly on the boards—largely by N.C. State's bench—they were getting beaten badly by ACC scoring leader T.J. Warren, who lit them up for 41 points.

    Forty-one.

    Another Petersen Events Center record.

    Cam Wright drew the initial assignment against Warren, but by the end of the night, I was convinced Dixon would ask me to guard him.

    Hey, I couldn't have done worse.

    The Panthers finally employed a few traps and double-teams that slowed him down late in the second half. But then Pitt's lackadaisical defense left his mates easy looks, on which they finally capitalized.

    To borrow a popular phrase from another Pittsburgh coach, the Panthers need to get to their game.

    Say what you will about stylistic differences between the Big East and ACC, but stubborn defense and consistent rebounding have been the Panthers' bread and butter when they are at their best. Generally, the Panthers (10-7, 22-8) have sat among the ACC's top five year-round in both categories.

    Senior Talib Zanna, who ranks second in the conference with 8.9 rebounds per game, grabbed nine on Monday, and he chipped in 11 points as well. But Pitt yielded 16 second-chance points without scoring any, and it got outscored in the paint by a 2:1 clip.

    The Panthers need to come hungrier for said bread and butter, especially in the case of more defensively inclined players like freshman Michael Young, and they need more leadership from Zanna.

3. Will the Freshmen Look Like Freshmen?

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Before he entered the NBA, Steven Adams spent much of his only season at Pitt looking as raw as raw could be. That was until he quietly finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds in an NCAA Tournament debut marred by the agony of an ugly defeat.

    The program-changer fans were waiting for had arrived, albeit, in retrospect, too late.

    This year, Michael Young is the only rookie among Jamie Dixon's standard starters, but the Panthers have also relied upon pure freshmen Jamel Artis and Josh Newkirk, as well as redshirt freshman Chris Jones, off the bench, and they'll be relied upon even more in the future.

    Are they following the same curve as Adams? The sample size from Jones is still a little too small. As for the rest...well, maybe.

    Newkirk is coming off of a season-best 20 points against the Wolfpack, including a 5-for-5 effort behind the arc. Durand Johnson's 4-for-6 season total not withstanding, Newkirk leads the Panthers in three-point shooting and is shooting over 57 percent from three-point range in conference play, which is a welcome boost along the perimeter with Johnson done for the season.

    But despite seeing a general uptick in minutes recently, and despite playing a very confident-looking game Monday, that was only the third time this season he's reached double figures.

    Artis, who led Pitt's bench with 4.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game entering Monday, has also shown flashes of brilliance, but he has yet to deliver the sort of eyebrow-raiser we just saw from Newkirk. Young has been satisfactory off the defensive glass, but he, too, has not yet posed a steady offensive threat.

    So what will happen upon their first exposure to postseason hoops? If they aren't intimidated by the big stage, they could help Pitt catch a couple of teams napping.

4. Can Jamie Dixon Get out of His Own Way?

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Sometimes scapegoating in college basketball is overdone.

    It was patently unfair to criticize head coach Jamie Dixon for calling timeout in the closing seconds against former No. 1 Syracuse on Feb. 12, before Tyler Ennis performed a miracle at The Pete. Had Ennis been allowed to drive coast to coast for an easy game-winning score, Dixon would have been lambasted just the same for not taking the time to talk shop with his defense before the pivotal play of the game.

    Other times scapegoating is quite appropriate.

    Dixon unnecessarily prolonged Saturday's win in South Bend by calling a late timeout when Lamar Patterson had a good look and a chance to end the game in regulation time. The ensuing possession ended with James Robinson missing an ill-conceived shot, and it is fair to say the Panthers eventually prevailed, in spite of their coach and his gaffe.

    Late in Pitt's final Big East season, following a second-half rally at home against South Florida, senior guard Tray Woodall memorably spoke about his coach telling him and his teammates to "just go out and play basketball" when times got tough—heresy for a hands-on bench boss like Dixon.

    Dixon later downplayed his alleged instruction—several times—but from that point forward, on that February night, we saw those Panthers play some of the most fluid basketball that particular team played all year.

    There's a big difference between bad coaching and simply not having the horses. Not every nefarious thing that has happened to Pitt this season should be shouldered by Dixon, though he's habitually taken responsibility for all of it.

    But that old Woodall anecdote makes one wonder: In times of tempered expectations, what's the worst that could happen if Dixon took the reins off and let the horses run for more than just a few minutes?

    It's hard to blame someone who has won more than 280 games in just over a decade for being set in his ways. But championships aren't won by micro-managing every possession of every game. They're won by putting the ball in the hands of the right guys at the right times, and by letting great players like Patterson be great.

    You don't need to be Dr. Jack to take the temperature of this fanbase. The proverbial mice have been given cookies, and now they're asking for glasses of milk.

    Over the long haul, Dixon has already become the most successful coach in Pitt history. However, because of how early and how organically his success came during the program's Big East years, everything he achieves will leave fans with a been-there-done-that feeling until he wins, at least, his first regional championship, and, at most, his first national championship.

    For now, his first step toward improving his stead in Pittsburgh must be taken in Greensboro.

5. Will the Backcourt Back Them Up?

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    James Robinson, hailed earlier this season by Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports as "one of the least appreciated point guards in America," has accomplished a lot for someone barely out of his teens. Most recently, he was named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the top NCAA player at his position.

    He's a dependable foul shooter and he's capable of sticking a big shot in a big spot from anywhere on the floor, but he's known for his skills as a distributor, not as a scorer. This is where fellow guard Cam Wright must step in at the two spot.

    The redshirt junior hasn't shown a ton of range, but Wright is bold, he can score off the dribble and he's taken a noticeable leap from his sophomore season.

    "I wouldn't say I'm a different player," he said after a flashy 20-point performance in the City Game against Duquesne. "I just give credit to my teammates for being able to set me up a lot. My guards and wings can all penetrate, and when they get me open, I just try to knock down the shot."

    Once again, the closest thing Pitt has to NBA talent is indeed on the wing, not up top. When you look at all the teams that have won titles with superb guard play, it's safe to say this is traditionally one of the Panthers' biggest handicaps. Changing conferences doesn't change the importance of having a strong, steady outside game.

Parting Shots

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    I'm not going to try to predict the most unpredictable sporting event of them all. But I will take a leap of faith and say the most important story of Pitt's postseason won't be the minutiae of any individual game. It will be the simple fact these Panthers got to play a little more basketball.

    Artis, Newkirk, Jones, and Young will get their first taste of the NCAA postseason in the ACC Tournament. James Robinson will get a couple of extra games under his belt before he becomes a junior. Durand Johnson has all summer to heal. That's the best that can be said about this team with any degree of certainty.

    As local legend Bill Cowher used to say, you're never as good as you think you are, and you're never as bad as people say you are. Pitt's first ACC season has been a trying one for those who have packed The Pete religiously, and, thanks in part to Tyler Ennis' prayer, it lacked a signature victory.

    However, if the Panthers sweep Clemson this weekend, the team picked in the preseason to finish sixth in the conference will finish fifth, so the Panthers will at least enter the postseason having met—technically, exceeded—expectations of this maiden voyage.

    Together, they'll know where they stand, and together, they'll have next season to raise those expectations.

    (Statistics courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations Office and TheACC.com. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.)