Pittsburgh Basketball: Report Cards for the 2013-14 Panthers

Matt Popchock@@mpopchockContributor IIJune 17, 2014

Pittsburgh Basketball: Report Cards for the 2013-14 Panthers

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    In the immortal words of Alice Cooper, school's out for summer (and, yes, for some, it's out forever) at the University of Pittsburgh. So it's time for Professor Popchock to put his 2013-14 Pitt basketball report cards in the mail.

    But since I'm not a teacher, and since B/R won't even let me play one on TV (I heard that school from "Boy Meets World" is hiring), I had to concoct my own completely original criteria for grading these young men, not to mention their coach.

    So I tried to keep things simple, and, above all, keep the performances of each player in proper context. Players who made visible progress from the previous season and played well in important games were considered for high marks. Players who leveled off and/or under-performed in important games were considered for average or below-average marks. Players who weren't in the starting five and didn't substantially impact the team one way or the other (see: Jones, Chris; Uchebo, Joseph; et al.) weren't considered at all.

    Like I said, simple, yes? Well, not exactly.

    Would it be fair to give Cam Wright an "A" for scoring in circles around some poor kid from Duquesne who might not start for half the teams in the ACC?

    Would it be any more fair to give Lamar Patterson an "F" for getting outplayed by Jabari Parker, who was deemed the face of [insert name of sad-sack NBA franchise here] before he even put on a Duke uniform?

    These are some of the questions over which I toiled long after finals had wrapped up and diplomas had been handed out.

    Commencement has commenced, so let the grading begin.

James Robinson

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    Robinson has been perhaps the most selfless and self-disciplined player on the team in his first two seasons at Pitt. Surely this, in Jamie Dixon's eyes, puts him at the head of the class.

    Once again, he finished among the national leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio with a 4.11 mark. He is still very much on pace to end his collegiate career as one of the all-time program leaders in that category. He was nominated for the Bob Cousy Award, which honors the nation's top point guard.

    His game-high 19 points, including some critical work at the foul line, gave the Panthers an upset of North Carolina in the quarter-final round of the ACC tournament. That was a classic case of an underclassman coming of age at just the right time. Having said that, it was only the first time since the 2013-14 season opener that Robinson led the team in scoring.

    In this era of trigger-happy point guards leading their teams to championships, Robinson only averaged 5.75 field goal attempts per game as a sophomore. He needs to improve upon that, and, considering how well he shot behind the arc compared to his teammates (second on the team in three-pointers with 24), he is capable of doing so.

    I give James an A-minus. I'd like to see him fine-tune his offensive game and be a little more selfish at times, but he has brought leadership and stability to a position at which Pitt has not always had it.

Cameron Wright

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    Cam Wright's junior season might be remembered more for what he did while holding court than what he did on the court. Following a blowout of short-handed Colorado, March Madness media asked Wright about the daunting task of facing top-seeded Florida.

    "The University of Pittsburgh is never intimidated by anyone," he proclaimed. "Whether it's academics...whether it's basketball, football, another sport..."

    Unfortunately, his performance against the Gators didn't match his hubris. Billy Donovan's defense held Jamie Dixon's starting 2 guard to seven points on 3-for-10 shooting, and Pitt's season ended with a lopsided loss in the round of 32.

    Wright's play at the outset of the season was encouraging. He dazzled in the annual City Game at CONSOL Energy Center, leading the Panthers with 20 points in an 84-67 romp over Duquesne Nov. 30. That was part of a run of six straight games in which Wright hit double figures.

    Conference action did not necessarily see a drop in productivity; Wright hovered around his ultimate 10.5 points-per-game average. But he shot inconsistently and seemed to disappear for stretches of play, including post-season play, in which he went under 35 percent from the field.

    In key home games against Duke and Syracuse he combined for just 15 points and committed ugly turnovers against the Blue Devils as that game slipped out of the Panthers' hands.

    In their pivotal regular season finale at Clemson he stepped up with 16 points, five assists and four steals. In Pitt's previous game, another must-win situation versus N.C. State, he attempted—and missed—only one shot all night.

    Now about those academics...

    Wright was given the Skip Prosser Award, given annually to the most outstanding student in ACC men's basketball, on Mar. 13. He was one of a league-high four Panthers selected to the ACC All-Academic Team. Previously, he was a three-time Big East All-Academic selection.

    College sports, particularly basketball, are no longer just activities. Today, like everything else in America, college basketball is an industry. We are distracted by the stakes of the games these young men play. In the meantime, it's easy for us to forget we're discussing student athletes.

    It's also easy for us to forget that many of them play those games with no other expectations than to be able to do what they love, represent their school to the best of their ability and get an education all at once. Admittedly, when they excel at getting that education, we don't always give them their due credit.

    Sometimes Dixon gets too much blame when things go wrong, and sometimes he doesn't get enough kudos when things go right. His teams might not always win. But they have always graduated. Again, given our own innate desire to be entertained, and given the alleged corruption of college sports that is gaining attention in our country, we probably don't celebrate that enough.

    Four out of every five men who have played for Dixon at Pitt have earned degrees from the university. Wright, a business-marketing major, is on track to join that majority. In that respect, he's a poster child for this program.

    On the court, for all my leniency, I can't justify giving Cam anything more than a "B." Off the court, however, he's an "A" all the way.

Lamar Patterson

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    The Panthers haven't normally had the luxury of a single superstar on which they could hang their collective hat. Jamie Dixon has always tried to coach up his teams with the attitude that anyone is capable of wearing a cape on any given night.

    This season, however, senior forward Lamar Patterson was their steadiest offensive force, whether or not you ever believed in his star power. The central Pennsylvania native ranked fifth in the ACC in points (17.1) and assists (4.3) per game.

    I hate to digress yet again, because I've got all summer to chase fans off the Jamie Dixon bully pulpit if I want to. But it's worth noting that Dixon has been criticized for not letting his best players shoot enough. To wit, Patterson was among the conference leaders in field goal attempts as well, taking 458 shots. That's an 85 percent increase from his junior season.

    He was never one to get stage fright. In a nationally televised 83-79 win at Maryland Jan. 25, he was the flashiest player on the floor, leading Pitt with 28 points that included a number of critical free throws. At Clemson Mar. 8 half of his career-high 30 came from three-point range, and his takeover of the overtime period gave Pitt the win it needed for NCAA tournament acceptance. In the Panthers' first-ever ACC tournament win Mar. 13 Patterson scored 24 on 8-for-13 shooting.

    Patterson's downfall was that he didn't always play enough of a dominant role in those high-leverage situations. He combined for just 18 points on 7-for-22 shooting, which was far below his career norm, in the NCAA tournament. When Duke visited the Petersen Events Center Jan. 27, he was matched up against imminent NBA lottery pick Jabari Parker, and the latter outclassed the former. Patterson finished with a laborious, too-little-too-late 14 points in a double-digit loss.

    Is he good enough to join Parker in the Association? Thirty GMs will be the final arbiters on that at the end of June. In the meantime, you might call Patterson the Dwight Howard of the 2013-14 Panthers. On a team that certainly wasn't Dixon's best, he was an outstanding player. On a superior squad, he'd only be Robin to someone else's Batman.

    I give Lamar an A-minus for obvious strides made in confidence and physical fitness, and for drawing positive attention to the program.

Michael Young

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    In his lifetime, Professor Popchock has seen two athletes named Michael Young come through Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the Panthers ended up with the one that couldn't hit anything.

    Okay, perhaps that was a bit too hard on the hometown big man. But when you come from a national high school powerhouse like New Jersey's St. Benedict's Prep, and you immediately earn a starting forward spot from a coach not always charitable toward freshmen, you'd better be able to play at both ends.

    To be fair, Young did shoot 81.7 percent from the foul line. This made him one of the Panthers' most consistent free-throw shooters, and it also put him on pace with some of the best in the ACC. The problem is that generating those chances requires being proactive in the paint. We didn't really see Young begin to open up his game and until the end of the season.

    Although he averaged a pedestrian-looking 4.1 rebounds per game, the most noticeable positive from his first year was his ability to clean the glass. He just couldn't put it back in the hole, registering only two double-figure games since conference play began.

    I give Michael a C-minus. His size (6'8", 245 lbs.) has been an asset on defense, where he demonstrated an occasional knack for being in the right place at the right time. Still, I expected a little more offense from someone entering the program with his upside.

Talib Zanna

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    Replacing Steven Adams wasn't as big of an ask as some might have thought. That's because Jamie Dixon had a converted center in senior Talib Zanna who didn't have the same raw ability, but proved he could put up comparable and fairly consistent numbers.

    Zanna finished in a virtual dead heat with Jabari Parker for the conference lead in rebounding at 8.6 per game, and he led the ACC with 3.3 offensive boards per game. He averaged 13 points per contest, which is about six more than Adams averaged in the latter's lone season at Pitt.

    That isn't entirely an apples-to-apples comparison. Zanna played more minutes, and, generally, he wasn't used by Dixon away from the ball to the same extent as Adams, which meant more scoring chances for him. Credit him with cashing in on more of those opportunities, including more at the foul line, as the Panthers got into the nitty-gritty of their schedule.

    His double-double against North Carolina in the ACC quarter-finals, 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting to complement 21 rebounds, was the watershed moment of his senior year. Even in losing efforts, he still contributed; Zanna shot 67.6 percent from the field in the month of March and 89.3 percent from the line.

    Had he played this well in critical games the previous two months, the Panthers might not have been in the position of having to scramble for wins to secure an NCAA tournament berth. In his initial meeting with the Tar Heels Feb. 15 Zanna was completely shut down. At Syracuse he left points on the floor that could have made a difference, and he hit a dry spell in home games against Virginia and Duke.

    You can't spell "Talib" without a "B," which is what I'll give him. Once again, he wasn't Adams, but he was serviceable at his position, and that was just fine.

Josh Newkirk

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    Joining the ACC has given Jamie Dixon the opportunity to expand his recruiting base, and freshman guard Josh Newkirk, Pitt's first recruit from an established ACC region (North Carolina), certainly had his moments.

    Pitt's NCAA tournament hopes were in jeopardy until his controversial buzzer-beater at Clemson sent that Mar. 8 game into overtime. The Panthers manhandled the Tigers in the extra period, and all was right with the world.

    It would have been nice to see more of those great moments in concurrence with the increase in minutes Newkirk earned in the second half of the season. He averaged just 4.6 points per game and 17 minutes per game as a Panther newcomer.

    Five days prior to that Clemson contest, while T.J. Warren was putting on a historic show for North Carolina State at The Pete, Newkirk provided one of Pitt's only bright spots with a season-high 20 points. He tried to help his team keep pace with the Wolfpack with a 5-for-5 effort from three-point land.

    This Pitt team was not a deep one. Newkirk seemed to be the only backup capable of providing consistent offense. Unfortunately, post-season play was not always kind to him. He opened with a 10-point, five-assist showing against Wake Forest in the ACC tournament, but shot only 35 percent from the field the rest of the way.

    I'll give Josh a C-plus, because he didn't seem to get the hang of it until the season was almost over. But when he was on his game, he definitely strengthened Pitt's offense.

Durand Johnson

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    If Durand Johnson had completed his sophomore season with a clean bill of health, the Panthers might have been a bigger threat to the NCAA tournament field.

    His accuracy still left something to be desired, but, with the exception of Newkirk, no one else on Jamie Dixon's bench could provide the offensive spark he did.

    Johnson averaged 8.8 points per contest in 16 appearances. He was coming off a stellar showing versus Maryland in which he scored 17 and hit three of his four three-point attempts when he hit the deck in the second half against Wake Forest Jan. 11.

    His 11 points in that Pitt victory, coming chiefly from the foul line, rode shotgun to the more grave news of the day: that Johnson had been lost for the season with an ACL tear.

    Therefore, Johnson gets an "I" for "incomplete" from me. Who's to say he wouldn't have brought around the rest of his game, which already included versatility and range, had he avoided the bite of the injury bug? We'll have to wait until at least November to find out.

Jamel Artis

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    Freshman forward Jamel Artis (6'7", 230 lbs.) was brought in to add size and athleticism to Pitt's front line. Count the Baltimore product among the Panthers whose potential has not yet been fully tapped.

    Artis averaged just under five points and three rebounds in just over 15 minutes per game as a rookie. His best effort, 13 points and seven boards, came in a losing effort at North Carolina Feb. 15.

    He shot at an adequate 46 percent clip, and, at more than 70 percent, he was pretty dependable from the free throw line as well. He just needs to develop more consistency and more range.

    I give Jamel a "C." This team will need more than just an adequate bench to contend next season, but the good news is Artis, like Newkirk, still has quite a capacity for growth.

Derrick Randall

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    What do you get when you add J.J. Moore to a dysfunctional Rutgers program, then take junior forward Derrick Randall from the Scarlet Knights and add him to Pitt's bench? If you got extra credit from Professor Popchock on your final exam, you know the right answer, which is, apparently, nothing.

    After Moore's head-scratching transfer cost the Panthers a versatile player, fans had to be hoping for a more favorable trade-off when Randall transferred to Pittsburgh. So far the trade-off has proved to be a raw deal.

    Moore averaged 11.2 points per game. Randall, more of a defensive asset, averaged 2.1 points and 2.4 rebounds per game in his penultimate year.

    Granted, it's the player's job to control what he can control. Moore got a healthy dose of playing time at Rutgers last season. Randall barely saw the floor for Pitt. Perhaps, had Jamie Dixon shortened his leash, Randall would have matured offensively?

    He made a smashing entrance into The Pete with 12 points and a dozen boards in the season opener against Savannah State. But that was as good as it got for him. After December there was only one game in which he grabbed more than three rebounds.

    Despite limited exposure, I have to give him a "D" because he just didn't do enough to fill Moore's shoes. And despite the fact the latter was being played out of position prior to leaving Pitt, the 2013-14 Panthers would have been much better off with Moore staying.

Jamie Dixon

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    Coming off a disastrous postseason and coming into the powerful ACC, part of me would have been happy to see Pitt and Jamie Dixon go their separate ways.

    While the Panthers competed in the Big East, Dixon proved he could reach the lofty bar Ben Howland had set, and during his tenure the program gained credibility not previously had. Declare victory and move on to someone else who can smoothly usher the program into a different era, right?

    On the whole, Dixon proved that part of me wrong in 2013-14. But he still has a lot to prove.

    Last season the Panthers finished in the top half of a mostly unfamiliar conference. They went further in conference tournament play than they had since winning the Big East postseason title in 2008. They reached the NCAA tournament round of 32. And they did it all with a team that was not Dixon's most talented, and an incoming recruiting class not his deepest.

    In summary, Jamie Dixon, as he is wont to do, did more with less. Believe it or not, he could have done even more with less.

    He turned an embarrassing first-half deficit against North Carolina State into a solid victory in his first ACC test. He was also embarrassingly late to the party on double-teaming T.J. Warren in the rematch.

    He went into South Bend and won, which, for some reason, has not been an easy thing for him to pull off. This happened only after an overzealous timeout cost the Panthers a chance to get it done before overtime.

    He also coached up his team to play a game Syracuse was forced to steal with a 40-foot leaner at the buzzer. Prior to Tyler Ennis' prayer, for which Dixon was criticized unfairly for using a timeout to set his defense, that defense left C.J. Fair wide open for a game-tying three.

    In summary, this was another bittersweet year for Dixon. He had his team more ready to play than given credit for, but he also had trouble matching up against teams possessing more skill and the ability to beat Pitt at its own game.

    I give Dixon a "B," because you are what your record says you are. A 26-10 mark in 2013-14 points to a Pitt team that was good, but could have been better. He'll have to start by recruiting better.

Parting Shots

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    So what grade does Professor Popchock give the 2013-14 Panthers as a team? After careful deliberation, he's settled on a "B-minus."

    In light of, by present standards, a pedestrian finish in the ACC standings, as well as another abbreviated postseason, fans might not be as charitable. From a national perspective, this was still a pretty good team. It simply didn't take advantage of enough good opportunities to be deemed a great one.

    To call these Panthers a team in transition would be a perfectly applicable use of that cliche. They proved that, in their finest hour, they can compete with the best their new conference has to offer.

    Now the pressure is on guys like Wright, Newkirk and Artis to bring up their aforementioned grades, and bring Pitt to the head of the class.

    Statistics courtesy of TheACC.com, CBSSports.com and the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations Office.