Pittsburgh Basketball: Biggest Changes Panthers Will Undergo in 2014 Offseason
Say what you will about Jamie Dixon, but he has not let the cyclical nature of college basketball get the best of him. As head coach at Pitt, his Panthers have missed the NCAA tournament only once in over a decade. Still, the road back to March Madness is never the same, and it won't be for his team in 2014-15.
The Panthers need to replace two very important individuals in their lineup from the 2013-14 campaign, and they need to replace one very important individual on Dixon's staff. Furthermore, there is plenty of fresh talent for them to integrate and for us to analyze.
Here's a closer look at some of the changes coming to Pitt as we approach the new season.
A Slice of Life
Perhaps the biggest change the Panthers will have to endure is one that will take place off the court, but fans are worrying it will ultimately affect everything on the court.
Assistant coach and ace recruiter Barry "Slice" Rohrssen, who had just begun his second tour of duty on Jamie Dixon's sideline in 2013-14, has left the program to join Moon Township native and friend John Calipari's staff at Kentucky. Director of basketball operations Brian Regan will fulfill the rest of Rohrssen's recruiting obligations to Pitt while it looks for a new assistant, and there doesn't appear to be a distinct favorite at this point.
Oddly enough, Rohrssen will be replacing another coach with Pittsburgh ties, Orlando Antigua. Antigua, a Pitt alumnus and Calipari assistant of five years, will take over South Florida's men's program in the wake of the Steve Masiello controversy.
Oh, and, just to put a nice, neat bow on this whole package, it was Masiello who succeeded Rohrssen as Manhattan's head coach in 2011.
Anyway, Slice's greatest accomplishment at Pitt was bringing in some of the best talent the New York City area had to offer in the early 2000s, helping keep the program competitive in the Big East from 1999 until his original departure in 2006. Big man Chris Taft and floor generals Carl Krauser and Levance Fields all came to Oakland via the Big Apple, and all contributed greatly to great teams.
In 2005, the year before Rohrssen took his old job at Manhattan, Scout.com ranked Pitt's recruiting class 23rd nationally and fourth in the Big East. That group included Fields and future NBA draftee Sam Young. Both players were fixtures when the Panthers made an Elite Eight appearance in 2009 that came within a gnat's eyelash of turning into a Final Four appearance—the high-water mark of Dixon's tenure at Pitt.
But after Rohrssen left, Pitt cracked Scout's national top 25 four of the next six years, ranking among the top 20 on three occasions. The 2010-11 Panthers echoed the success of the '08-'09 squad by earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and they actually did them one better by earning a Big East regular-season title. So it's a myth that Dixon "needs" Slice to keep his program cutting-edge.
Nevertheless, a major concern of Pitt fans is how the departure of Rohrssen affects the status of top Class of 2016 recruit Mustapha Heron. Heron (6'4", 185 lbs.), a gritty small forward ranked fifth nationally at his position by Panther Digest, is a potential game-changer who would mesh beautifully with Pitt, given his rough-and-tumble style.
The West Haven, Conn. native chose Pitt early in his high school career because of his friendship with Rohrssen. He might follow Slice to Lexington, but, as Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Kevin Gorman shared, there's at least a puncher's chance Heron remains a Panther after all:
Heron says @CoachDixon has taken over his recruitment, and plans to watch Heron and Harlem New Heights play at Pgh JamFest this weekend.— Kevin Gorman (@KGorman_Trib) April 22, 2014
Heron: "My relationship with Coach Rohrssen was why I picked Pitt. Now, I'm trying to build a relationship with Coach Dixon."— Kevin Gorman (@KGorman_Trib) April 22, 2014
That said, Heron is a 5-star sophomore who Rohrssen could go after for Kentucky. If so, Heron said he "would be interested" in Wildcats.— Kevin Gorman (@KGorman_Trib) April 22, 2014
Thanks to assistant coach Brandin Knight, Pitt is already off to a nice start with its 2015 class; 4-star shooting guard Damon Wilson, a Powder Springs, Ga. native entering his senior season at Our Savior New American in Centereach, N.Y., has come aboard.
Meanwhile, local guard Cameron Johnson from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Iowa JUCO center Tyrone Haughton were added this week to the 2014 class.
Don't worry about Pitt losing the recruiting trail, but the trail may be rerouted now that Rohrssen is gone.
Off the Lam
Jabari Parker (Duke), T.J. Warren (North Carolina State) and Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) are a few of the 2013-14 ACC stars headed toward NBA careers. While the future for Lamar Patterson is murkier, Pitt is another of the top programs in the conference that must worry about replacing one of its most valuable—if not the most valuable—players.
Patterson finished fifth in the conference in both points (17.1) and assists (4.3) per game, and he was one of the league's most efficient outside shooters, converting three-pointers at a 38.8 percent clip. The fifth-year forward finished his collegiate career as the 42nd member of Pitt's 1,000-point club; his grand total of 1,410 put him, fittingly, right behind Brandin Knight at No. 17 in program history.
To borrow a line from one out-of-conference coach whose team visited The Pete, the finest quality of Jamie Dixon's players, collectively, is that they share the sugar. Led by point guard James Robinson, one of the most disciplined ball-handlers in the country, Pitt will surely field another unselfish team next season, so Patterson's distributing skills won't be missed.
Having said that, it's time for the Panthers to find a new hero on offense, particularly in the front row of its half-court attack. Unless there's still another level Cam Wright (10.5 points per game in '13-'14) hasn't reached yet at the 2, they'll need a healthy dose of a healthy Durand Johnson to help make up for Patterson's scoring touch, and they'll need freshman reserves Josh Newkirk and Jamel Artis to continue their evolution.
Pitt finds itself in a similar predicament at the 5. The future of outgoing senior Talib Zanna in this sport is debatable, but that doesn't delete what he brought to the Panthers.
Zanna ended up seventh in program history with a career .553 field-goal percentage, and he finished just a hair behind Jabari Parker for the ACC lead in rebounding with 8.6 per game this past year. He averaged an even 13 points per contest and was, arguably, Pitt's most consistent player in the twilight of its season.
Fortunately the Panthers have options at center. In addition to an intriguing member of their 2014 recruiting class whom we'll discuss shortly, fellow Nigerian Joseph Uchebo (6'10", 260 lbs.) will probably consume much of Zanna's minutes as a junior.
His sample size from his sophomore year—23 minutes spread out over nine appearances—obviously isn't big enough for us to pass judgment. But Uchebo has a JUCO resume that reads well (12.3 points and rebounds per game with Chipola Junior College 2011-13), and he has the all-important rebounding acumen that will probably make the job his to lose as far as Jamie Dixon is concerned.
Not a single game has been played, and yet this is already one of the most special recruiting classes Jamie Dixon has ever had. It's special in the sense that three local prospects are a part of it, which is three more than have played at Pitt since Schenley product DeJuan Blair left early for the NBA.
Hampton forward and PIAA Class AAAA all-state selection Ryan Luther, pictured here, could eventually morph into a pretty serviceable player at Pitt. Luther (6'9", 215 lbs.), the all-time leading scorer in Hampton history, led his Talbots to three consecutive district finals and was named the boys' player of the year in Quad-A by Pennsylvania Sports Writers.
"I've called him a baby Dirk Nowitzki. In other words, he does a variety of things," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scholastic sports editor Mike White said in October. "He is a good shooter for a 6'8" player. He can bring the ball up against full-court presses and his size lets him see over pressure. He also can score inside on post-up moves. Yet he can go outside, make three-pointers and also put the ball on the floor and drive it."
Beaver Falls alumnus Sheldon Jeter is another versatile player who added layers to his game, physically and tactically, over the years. He transferred to Pitt after registering 5.5 points and 3.4 boards per game off the bench at Vanderbilt as a freshman before sitting out the 2013-14 season.
Jeter (6'8", 225 lbs.), who will also play the wing, was an all-state honoree as a senior as well. He led the Tigers to a WPIAL Class AA title and was the consensus 2011-12 player of the year in the district. Joining him and Luther, as mentioned earlier, will be OLSH guard Cameron Johnson.
These aren't just extra bodies for practice. These are three players who are going to compete for playing time sooner or later, and it's very interesting to see Jamie Dixon taking Pitt back to its roots like he hasn't before.
There will be a Dutch man in the paint next season.
See what I did there?
Shaquille Doorson, a native of the Netherlands and another curious study in overseas recruiting, is no joke. At least, the Panthers hope he isn't.
Little is known regarding the 6'11", 265-pound youngster beyond the highlight reel shared here by his school, Spain's world-renown Canarias Basketball Academy. Doorson succeeds fellow center Steven Adams as the latest foreign import to attract attention en route to Pittsburgh, not to mention the first Dutch-born player in Pitt history.
Panther-Lair.com gave him four stars. But Panther Digest only gave him two stars, one for each year of organized basketball he's played...ever.
Granted, the star system is as imperfect as any other means of predicting the long-term value of a newcomer. However, this demonstrates just how tough it is to foresee how well this one will measure up against the rigorous competition of the ACC.
Will Doorson be the next DeJuan Blair? Or will he be the next Aaron Gray, a seven-foot man who was often guilty of playing like half of that?
Even if he just splits the difference, and if the aforementioned Joseph Uchebo fills whatever gaps in his game exist, we'll barely notice Talib Zanna is gone.
This year wasn't a banner one for Pitt, but it wasn't supposed to be. The 2013-14 season was about the program finding out where it stands in the ACC, and the 2014-15 season will begin the process of finding its way to the top.
The Panthers lose some experience and some recruiting gravitas, but they also return some promising players who have lots of room to grow, and they've still got a few coming down the pipeline.
We'll try to catch up with some of those players at the Greentree Summer League in a couple of months. In the meantime, Jamie Dixon has some tough decisions to make.
Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com, CBSSports.com, TheACC.com, NCAA.com and the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations Office.