Pittsburgh Basketball: Strengths and Weaknesses of the Panthers' 2014-15 Roster

Matt PopchockContributor IIMay 2, 2014

Pittsburgh Basketball: Strengths and Weaknesses of the Panthers' 2014-15 Roster

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    USA TODAY Sports

    We're still well over a month away from the opening of the Greentree Summer League, the centerpiece of the Pitt basketball offseason. But we can still get a feel for next season's roster before we get our first glimpse of those guys in action.

    Like any other team in college hoops, Pitt has a couple things that stand out as possible strengths entering the 2014-15 season, a couple of things that look like potential weaknesses and a couple of things that are a little bit of both. Let's explore all three.

Clean Bill of Health

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    John Heller/Associated Press

    If I've been reading between the lines—er, tweets—correctly, the epitaph of Pitt's 2013-14 campaign should be a picture of a hobbled Durand Johnson being helped off the floor of the Petersen Events Center on Jan. 4.

    In reality, this moment alone, unfortunate though it was, did not wreck the Panthers' season. However, without a consistent outside game to begin with, losing Johnson hurt their ability to keep pace with their less offensively challenged opponents and to get back into games when they absolutely had to.

    The eventual return of the 6'6", 205-pound swingman from ACL surgery will be a welcomed one. He averaged 8.8 points off the bench in over 16 games as a redshirt sophomore, and he can do a little bit of everything, especially behind the arc.

    Johnson shot a healthy 33.8 percent from three-point distance, and he was on pace to finish with 50 three-point buckets before his injury. That would have put him second on the team behind top overall scorer Lamar Patterson. For a backup, that's not a bad thing.

    Pitt finished seventh in the ACC in three-point field goal efficiency. It finished eighth in three-point defense. One wonders how much better it might have finished in both categories had Johnson stayed healthy.

    The Panthers return starting guards James Robinson and Cam Wright and forward Michael Young. They lose Patterson and center Talib Zanna. It will do Pitt good to have a healthy roster again and to have a serviceable player like Johnson, a bona fide gym rat, getting himself ready to succeed Patterson.

Blue and Gold Hawaii

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    Credit: University of Pittsburgh Athletic Dept.

    Since the day Ralph Sampson watched in awe as newspaper editors around the country were forced to ask "Where the hell is Chaminade?", the Maui Invitational, as it later came to be known, has become one of the most prestigious events of college basketball's regular season. This fall, for the first time ever, Pitt will participate.

    The Panthers will be in a field Nov. 24-26 that includes the host Silverswords, as well as Arizona, BYU, Kansas State, Missouri, Purdue and San Diego State. Arizona and the Aztecs both won regular-season conference titles and went deep into the NCAA tournament, for which K-State also qualified. All three made Bleacher Report's C.J. Moore's preseason top 25.

    Meanwhile, of the rest, Division II Chaminade notwithstanding, only Purdue finished the 2013-14 season with an RPI outside the top 50.

    In other words, you might want to keep your eyes glued to a certain four-letter cable sports network during your Thanksgiving break. Longtime rival Syracuse won the Maui Invitational in its first year as an ACC member, so there will already be something of a spotlight on the Panthers.

    In other nonconference scheduling news, Pitt can now look forward to being part of the Tom Crean farewell tour when it visits Indiana for the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 2. It will be the Panthers' first appearance at Assembly Hall since World War II, and obviously, it's another big-name opponent.

    Anyway, having the chance to play in such a low-risk, high-reward setting as Maui should be of great help to this team developmentally. There's a reason UNC and Michigan State signed up for the inaugural Carrier Classic a couple seasons ago, there's a reason Duke and Kansas agreed to meet in Chicago last year, and so forth.

    Jamie Dixon understands the potential for his team to lose and maybe even to get embarrassed. Even so, he'll gain a clearer picture of what he has to work with, and his players—particularly the underclassmen—will mature as a result of the experience.

    At the very least, fans and journalists who belong to the "Pitt never plays anybody" camp will now have less to complain about.

Super Sophomore?

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    The biggest bright spot of the Panthers' 2013 freshman class was guard Josh Newkirk. The 6'1", 185-pound Raleigh, North Carolina, native averaged 4.6 points in 17 minutes per game off Jamie Dixon's bench, and he converted 43.4 percent of his three-point attempts to lead the team.

    On the plus side, Pitt obviously has a lot of time left with one of its most-capable scorers. Be that as it may, Newkirk still has a lot of room to grow. Free throws were a real bugaboo at times for the Panthers last season, and Newkirk shot a team-low 44.7 percent from the line.

    Newkirk is already the answer to two Pitt basketball trivia questions: Who was the first player to commit to the program via Twitter, and who was the first to do so from an established ACC region? You might say he's also the answer to a third: Who was the guy who saved Pitt's 2013-14 season?

    He hit a game-tying jumper at the buzzer to prolong an eventual win at Clemson that, for all we know, crystallized Pitt's NCAA tournament hopes once and for all. That was preceded by a 20-point night against North Carolina State in which he had the misfortune of standing in T.J. Warren's shadow. He just wasn't able to string together enough of those breakout/breakthrough efforts.

    Still, the more Newkirk sees the floor next season the better, which is Dixon's other dilemma. Newkirk is a natural point guard, and that job is Robinson's to lose. Furthermore, Dixon, though he has strayed from the habit recently, has a history of loyalty to his seniors—sometimes to a fault.

    So even if he wanted to experiment and play Newkirk out of position, it doesn't seem likely Wright would get bumped out of the starting five. Nevertheless, expect the underclassman to play an integral role.

Patience Is a Virtue

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    Credits: 247Sports.com, Kelly Kline/Adidas

    First, the good news: Take a look at the young man pictured here and commit it to memory, because he might be the next superstar to come out of Pitt.

    Now, the bad news: That player is still two years away from putting on a Pitt uniform.

    Meet Mustapha Heron, a 6'4", 185-pound combo guard from Waterbury, Connecticut, who is slated for Dixon's 2016 recruiting class.

    His future is likely in Dixon's backcourt, and he's so versatile that Scout.com actually lists him as a small forward. Affiliate site Panther Digest gives him five stars and ranks him among the top 25 2016 recruits, regardless of position, in the entire country.

    When Heron played in the recent Under Armour Hoopgroup Pittsburgh Jam Fest tournament, he told Post-Gazette's Mike White that, despite the departure of assistant coach Barry Rohrssen, he will honor his verbal commitment to the Panthers. White reported:

    He is very strong for a high school sophomore guard. He has broad shoulders and is well-built. Although he is only a sophomore, he played for a New Heights team in the 17-and-under division, which includes mostly juniors.

    Heron is a left-handed shooter who uses his strength and power to score. When I saw him play, he didn't shoot much from the outside. He uses his strength to get to the basket and score.

    Pitt has had great players come and go. But this is the sort of program-changer who could one day affect a lengthy postseason run. The Panthers have no such proven asset entering 2014-15.

    Critics will say Pitt has done a better job selling hope than delivering on it. I will say last season was par for the course for that particular group, but I will cede that it may take until Heron gets here to see a major upturn in the program's success.

Get to the Points

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    Vincent Pugliese-USA TODAY Sports

    If we're really looking at the career of Dixon objectively, there is something to be said for his consistency of approach. He's presided over one of the greatest periods of sustained prosperity in Pitt history and in recent NCAA history.

    However, it's also his consistency of approach that has contributed to the Panthers' undoing at times. He emphasizes rebounding to the point it practically becomes a drinking game for postgame press conference attendees.

    His desire to micromanage possessions can be counter-productive, and his rough-and-tumble, defensively slanted style has sometimes left his teams vulnerable to opponents with budding NBA talent.

    That can be remedied by recruiting the right type of player. His 2014 class carries some intrigue in the sense there's three local players involved, but it probably won't be the best class he pulls together as long as he remains at Pitt.

    The Panthers didn't fail last season because they couldn't defend. They failed because they scuffled for points against teams that had more going for them than just fundamentals.

    Losing their starting center to graduation and having to suspend Derrick Randall, a candidate to fill that void, leaves them with generally unproven big men to make up a spot in the lineup that produced a lot of points last season.

    In the meantime, there's nothing to suggest Dixon will change his ways in his second season in the ACC. He shouldn't have to. But not being married to them wouldn't hurt, either, and being more hands-off every now and then might allow players like Johnson with a high offensive ceiling to reach that ceiling more often.

Parting Shots

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Despite a very promising start, the 2013-14 Panthers weren't destined for an ACC crown. They also weren't overwhelmed by the outstanding talent and supposedly drastic change in style of play in their new conference. They were somewhere in the middle.

    That's exactly where the Panthers seem to be headed entering the 2014-15 season. If all goes well with Johnson, if Newkirk blossoms and if they can fill the hole at center without the help of Randall, this should be a pretty competitive squad.

    The question remains whether or not it will be compelling enough to tide fans over until Dixon can find the next bumper crop of prep stars, like Heron, who can take Pitt to the next level.

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