Pittsburgh Basketball: Top Storylines to Follow in the Panthers' 2014 Offseason

Matt Popchock@@mpopchockContributor IIApril 18, 2014

Pittsburgh Basketball: Top Storylines to Follow in the Panthers' 2014 Offseason

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    It's lonely at the top. Jamie Dixon has been there before as a member of the Big East.

    It isn't much better in the middle. He was there, too, in Pitt's inaugural ACC season.

    In 2013-14, the Panthers struggled to avoid mediocrity as they know it and as their fans have grown to define it. They won games they could have lost, lost games they could have won and finished with a sub-.500 record in conference home games for just the second time since the Petersen Events Center opened in 2002.

    Nevertheless, by reaching the semifinals of the ACC tournament and taking eventual champion Virginia down to the wire once again, the Panthers showed they belong. Running into Billy Donovan's Florida Gators with a loud thud and going home early from the NCAA tournament again provided a reality check.

    At least Pitt enters this summer knowing more about where it stands in the ACC than it did a year ago. Now, as the adage goes, is when champions are made—when no one else is watching.

    So let's take a look at some important 2014 offseason talking points regarding the Panthers.

Thinning the Herd?

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    As both of this year's national finalists demonstrated, rapid improvements can happen at any time, anywhere in college basketball. They aren't just about what the team in question does to get better. They're also about what happens to their opponents to make those other teams worse.

    Would Duke forward and national freshman of the year Jabari Parker declare for the approaching NBA draft? That question was finally answered in the affirmative on Thursday in a story that was first reported by Jeff Benedict of Sports Illustrated and picked up by Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Matt Fitzgerald.

    Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman projects Parker as the No. 1 overall pick. Parker, who finished second in the ACC with 19.1 points per game and led the conference with 8.7 rebounds per game, officially made up his mind with just 10days to spare.

    Coach Mike Krzyzewski can't just randomly pull a kid off the street and turn him into Parker (though, to non-Duke fans, it sure feels that way). Even though the Blue Devils, as usual, are expected to contend in 2014-15, Parker's departure deprives them of an important cog in that machine next season.

    Other 2014 NCAA tournament entrants from the ACC face similar questions. Will the Orange still crush the competition now that freshman point guard Tyler Ennis, a recent Pittsburgh sports villain and the conference leader in assists (5.5 per game), has pulled a Carmelo Anthony?

    What will happen to North Carolina now that Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and James Michael McAdoo have all bolted? That's a combined 42.0 points per game that the Heels have to find elsewhere.

    Will the North Carolina State Wolfpack lose their bite without young forward and ACC scoring champion T.J. Warren (24.9 points per game)? The sophomore sensation will be going pro as well.

    The pantry of talent is never bare in the ACC (they're called "power conferences" for a reason), and Jamie Dixon will have his own hands full in trying to replace top scorer Lamar Patterson (17.1 points per game) and top glass-cleaner Talib Zanna (8.6 rebounds per game). But the leaders of the pack could fall back to the pack a little bit in 2014-15, which would help the Panthers.

A Fine Point

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    Sophomore James Robinson has already brought stability to his position that Pitt has not always enjoyed. He has excelled defensively and has taken care of the ball better than most floor generals in the country, finishing third in Division I with a 4.11 assist-to-turnover ratio in 2013-14.

    Still, to be remembered as one of the truly great point guards in program history, Robinson needs to add a layer to his game. Through his first two seasons with the Panthers, he has averaged just 6.9 points per contest.

    That's not to say he can't make big plays on the offensive end. In the quarterfinal round of the ACC tournament, he registered 19 points and was clutch at the free-throw line in an upset of North Carolina. But that was only the first time since the Panthers' season opener that he led the team in scoring.

    History, especially recent history, says the Panthers need more steady offensive production from the point. Pitt doesn't have a Shabazz Napier. Fellow guard Cameron Wright averaged 10.5 points per game as a redshirt junior, but he isn't one to strap the team to his back.

    Maybe Robinson has hit his ceiling. He shot only 40 percent from the field in 2013-14, the worst rate of Jamie Dixon's starting five. Then again, maybe it's more of a confidence thing than a skill thing. He only attempted 5.8 shots per game this past season and yet finished second on the team with 24 three-pointers.

    If he can figure out how to become a more complete player, Pitt can become a more complete team.

Making the 'Most' of It

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    Pitt already has some potential in the backcourt behind Robinson and Wright. Josh Newkirk, who was a team-best 43 percent three-point shooter in 2013-14, showed flashes of brilliance on the offensive end during his pure freshman campaign. The team hopes Durand Johnson, another handy weapon, will be healthy enough to join Pitt by the start of next season as well.

    The Panthers hoped Detrick Mostella would add to that potential. Mostella (6'3", 170 lbs), a shooting guard from La Porte, Ind., reneged on his commitment to Oklahoma State after his senior season at La Lumiere, but academic troubles befell him before he could join Pitt.

    A 4-star class of 2013 recruit, according to 247Sports.com, he probably would have seen a healthy dose of playing time last season—and could have made a world of difference during that time—if not for those clearinghouse issues.

    "What is huge about Mostella on the offensive end is that he can score both off the bounce and from deep. If defenders play him as a driver he simply will take the perimeter jumper and make it, then if they play him as a shooter he will attack off the dribble where he can go either right or left," said Scout.com national recruiting analyst Brian Snow (subscription required) on March 30, 2013.

    Snow continued:

    Beyond that he is an impressive athlete. While slightly undersized for a true shooting guard, Mostella can finish in traffic around the rim because of his excellent leaping ability, and then has the quickness and ability to change speeds to be someone that is tough to guard.

    There quite simply aren't many better and more gifted scorers in the country than Mostella

    So will he be in uniform this fall? Here are some of the most recent updates:

    Spoke to Detrick Mostella tonight. He told me that he expects to enroll and join Pitt for the second semester "if things go as planned."

    — Matthew Steinbrink (@MattSteinbrink) October 24, 2013

    @JGing676: @KGorman_Trib any updates on mostella coming this year?” I wouldn't get your hopes up. He never signed a LOI. He's in Alabama.

    — Kevin Gorman (@KGorman_Trib) January 12, 2014

    "Committed to Pitt" is no longer in Detrick Mostella's twitter bio. So I guess Pitt fans can move forward from that.

    — Ryan Bertonaschi (@TraffordsGift) April 11, 2014

    Jamie Dixon's magnum opus has been stacking wins upon wins with players whose flaws mask their true abilities. Levon Kendall, Nasir Robinson and Gilbert Brown are just a few of the folks who can vouch for that. But players with Mostella's upside have come to Pitt infrequently.

    Depending on which faction of the fanbase you speak to, Dixon hasn't always been able to make the most of those who have. Steven Adams, the most recent example, barely had his foot in the door at Pitt before the Oklahoma City Thunder got him the rest of the way.

    On the court, Mostella wouldn't be a difficult project. If he ever makes his way back to Oakland, he could help soothe anxieties about the future of the team and its leadership.

Can They Go Home Again?

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    Forty years ago, this team truly was the "Pittsburgh" Panthers; however, to those of us who are not old enough to appreciate the glory days of the 20th century, it feels like four hundred.

    The 1973-74 Panthers made the Elite Eight with a team consisting chiefly of WPIAL and City League players, including Braddock legend Billy Knight and Quaker Valley alumnus Mickey Martin. Their top six players, all from the area, were immortalized in a Sports Illustrated photo atop Mount Washington (see page 60).

    You'd have to go back to former Schenley star and current Dallas Maverick DeJuan Blair to pinpoint the last time Pitt welcomed a hometown player who was good, let alone great. Five years isn't ancient history, but Blair was an outlier, not the norm, for this program under Jamie Dixon.

    Currently, the closest thing Pitt has is Phoenix transplant Mike Lecak, who spent some time in Pittsburgh as a kid and walked onto the Panthers after opening his collegiate career at Wheeling Jesuit University of NCAA Division II.

    On the road map of college basketball recruiting, nobody will ever confuse suburban Pennsylvania with, say, rural Indiana, but, in recent years, the WPIAL has improved its stead. It has improved so much, in fact, that Pitt will welcome not one but two local players next season—and, barring unforeseen developments, a third will be on the way later.

    Former Beaver Falls swingman Sheldon Jeter (pictured here) will be eligible next season after transferring from Vanderbilt and sitting out the 2013-14 campaign. Jeter (6'8", 225 lbs) played mostly off the bench for the Commodores, averaging 5.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game in his lone season.

    Previously, he led BF to the WPIAL Class AA championship as a senior as well as a berth in the state final, and he was named the consensus WPIAL Player of the Year for the 2011-12 season. He grew stronger as he got older, and he also grew more coachable as he got older. He can run the floor, and his range is satisfactory.

    Ryan Luther, the top scorer in Hampton history, will join the Panthers after leading his Talbots to three consecutive trips to the WPIAL finals. Luther (6'9", 215 lbs), a PIAA Class AAAA all-state selection, ranked third in the WPIAL with 21.3 points per game as a senior. He, like Jeter, can stick the three and give the Panthers more toughness inside.

    Meanwhile, we don't have a crystal ball handy, so let's assume that Lincoln Park class of 2016 shooting guard Maverick Rowan honors the verbal commitment he made to Pitt as a freshman. If so, he could become the most significant homegrown talent on the team since Blair.

    Rowan (6'5", 180 lbs), one of Pennsylvania's players of the year, scored a game-high 37 points, including four key foul shots, to push the Leopards to their first PIAA Class A crown on March 21.

    Pitt has lacked players who can completely take over games, which has haunted them one postseason after another. Rowan, who is ranked No. 14 nationally by Panther Digest, could be that man, and he could also help Dixon silence those who say he doesn't get the most out of potential superstars.

    Pitt returns its starting backcourt and forward Michael Young. Beyond that, how easily can Jeter and Luther climb a depth chart that includes semi-regulars Durand Johnson and Jamel Artis and Nigerian prospect Joseph Uchebo? The career paths of these newcomers could affect the future of the program, to say nothing of its recruiting base.

A Good Leg to Stand On

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    With the Mostella situation taking a wrong turn for the Panthers, they need a long-range scoring threat to supplement young guard Josh Newkirk. Right now, this means forward Durand Johnson has to make the most of his remaining two years of eligibility.

    He averaged 8.8 points per game as a sophomore while playing about 20 minutes per game off the bench before suffering a season-ending ACL injury against Wake Forest on Jan. 11. He hit 22 three-pointers in 16 games, which is only one fewer than Newkirk made without missing a single game.

    His absence was not the only thing that caused the Panthers to level off in the second half of the season. But in February, they lost four conference games by a combined 14 points, and having someone like Johnson who can shoot like an NBA player could have made a difference in those tight contests.

    As noted earlier, top scorers Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna are gone. After a head-scratching 2013 offseason development in which Pitt and Rutgers essentially traded 4s—J.J. Moore and Derrick Randall, respectively—neither player gave a palpable advantage to his new team in 2013-14.

    Furthermore, the jury is still out on swingman Chris Jones and incoming Dutch center Shaquille Doorson, who may ride shotgun to Nigerian soon-to-be junior Joseph Uchebo at the 4. Michael Young puts more of a defensive slant on the starting five, so without assuming significant growth by reserve forward Jamel Artis, Pitt, all in all, could use more stability up front.

    The Panthers need the versatile Johnson to get healthy, stay healthy and provide such stability at both ends of the floor.

Parting Shots

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    Until he at least reaches a Final Four, Jamie Dixon will have plenty of critics in Pittsburgh. However, some years, you have the horses, and some years, you don't. Ultimately, Pitt's undoing this past season had more to do with that than Dixon.

    If we're separating the tree from the woods, the 2013-14 season could be characterized as a "good" one for the Panthers and for Dixon. In both the regular campaign and postseason, they defeated opponents they should have and generally lost to superior ones. Meanwhile, Dixon has continued to bring fascinating prospects into the program.

    But how good is good enough?

    Being "good" (read: consistently finishing in the top half of the conference and being an NCAA tournament also-ran) isn't good enough for Pitt fans these days, and when your town's nickname is "City of Champions," such mood swings are inevitable.

    Expect Pitt to be good again next season. But it needs to get better in a lot of areas this offseason in order to return to greatness.


    Statistics courtesy of NCAA.com, TheACC.com, ESPN.com, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations Office.