Pittsburgh Basketball: 5 Questions Fans Want Answered Before the Season Begins
The annual Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am has gotten people talking about Pitt hoops during an otherwise busy opening to the summer sports scene. Those not distracted by Pirates baseball and/or World Cup soccer have been migrating to Montour High School (McKees Rocks, Pa.) to watch the Panthers train for free.
They've got questions about the 2014-15 Panthers. Having had the chance to see a little summer league ball ourselves, we'll do our best to provide answers.
The following are five things fans are dying to know about Pitt before its second tour of ACC duty begins.
Who Is Marlon Williamson?
When assistant coach Barry "Slice" Rohrssen left Pittsburgh to work for good friend and native son John Calipari at Kentucky, the Panthers lost a solid coach and a solid recruiter. But they may have found another one as they transition from "Slice" to "Smoke."
Former UMass assistant Marlon "Smoke" Williamson will take Rohrssen's place next to Jamie Dixon beginning this fall. The Minutemen improved their fortunes considerably in the two seasons he spent with that program, reaching the NIT in 2013 and earning their first NCAA tournament berth since 1998 last year.
In addition, Williamson, whose father went to Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, spent considerable time as a decision-maker for an AAU program in Detroit called The Family. That program has produced a number of Division I prospects.
Pitt has effectively dealt with Rohrssen's absence once before under Jamie Dixon. It should now be well equipped to deal with that loss again, especially if Williamson can help broaden the program's recruiting horizons.
When Will Durand Johnson Return?
Junior forward Durand Johnson shot only 40 percent from the field as a sophomore, so it's merely an urban legend that his season-ending ACL injury was also the pivotal moment of the Panthers' season as a whole. But it certainly limited the options Jamie Dixon had last season, and he didn't have that many in the first place.
When Johnson was asked recently if he would be available for the start of the 2014-15 season, he gave Pitt LiveWire an optimistic outlook.
He's a sharpshooting combo forward, and the Panthers could really use him at the 3 if he rediscovers his three-point stroke. Johnson is a career 36 percent shooter from behind the arc, and he is one of the only Panthers who can hit those with any degree of consistency. Then, assuming Dixon is still satisfied with sophomore Michael Young at the 4, that leaves center as the only void to fill in his starting five, which we'll address here shortly.
In a macro view, Pitt wasn't always offensively challenged. They actually finished fourth in the ACC in points per game, and in the top one-fifth of Division I. But they let down in the late stages of their most critical losses last season, so they need more players, like Johnson (8.8 points/game off the bench in '13-'14), who can score naturally, and possibly do so in high-leverage situations.
Who Will Man the Middle?
In hindsight, this question might have been answered about six months before it was asked. Dutch prospect and potential starting center Shaquille Doorson decommitted in January. For some reason, that wasn't public knowledge until Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported it last week:
Apparently, @HailToPittHoops released Shaq Doorson from his NLI/scholarship in January, which explains why he's visiting other schools now.— Kevin Gorman (@KGorman_Trib) June 25, 2014
Unless Jamie Dixon desires to play somebody out of position, this leaves junior Joseph Uchebo as the most logical choice to succeed Talib Zanna at the 5. The 6'10", 260-pound Nigerian certainly is not as proven as Zanna was. But with his physical tools, Uchebo would take the rugged, blue-collar approach to the position that Dixon loves.
He delivered a monster performance in the PBC Pro-Am Monday night, netting 27 points on 11 of 12 shots from the field and grabbing 26 rebounds in a narrow win. He followed it up with 15 points and 22 boards Wednesday night.
Summer league basketball is tantamount to 7-on-7 football; it's a bunch of guys in gym clothes nonchalantly running back and forth, mainly to get themselves in shape for the upcoming season. Not every dominant summer league player dominates when it matters. So one can only draw so many conclusions from those games.
However, it is worth nothing that Zanna won PBC Pro-Am MVP honors last year and went on to a fine season, and Josh Newkirk was Pitt's most productive newcomer after being named the league's top freshman. Hopefully for the Panthers, what Uchebo did Monday was equally ominous.
Will the WPIAL Prospects Make a Difference?
Speaking of the PBC Pro-Am, one of the most intriguing Pitt representatives in the summer league has been former Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (Coraopolis, Pa.) guard Cameron Johnson. With his size and range, he gave us a first impression that suggested he could be quite the under-the-radar player for the Panthers.
"I feel like I'm going to Pitt for a reason," Johnson said. "I've been watching [the PBC Pro-Am] for four years, so I know what it's about. The physicality of the ACC is a big difference, so the biggest thing I'm working on is staying low."
Johnson (6'7", 185 lbs.), whose unexpected growth spurt late in his high school career could help him endure, sees himself as a perimeter guy. In his PBC Pro-Am debut on June 23 he buried four of his first five three-point shots and finished with a team-leading 24 points in a decisive win. He's averaging 19.2 points per summer league game thus far.
His present challenge is not only learning how to harness his new physique, but how to do it painlessly. When he does, he'll probably be a swingman off the Panthers' bench. He'll be joined there by two other WPIAL newcomers, former Beaver Falls (Pa.) star and Vanderbilt transfer Sheldon Jeter, and former Hampton (Allison Park, Pa.) standout Ryan Luther.
Injecting so much local flavor into Jamie Dixon's roster is unheard of during his tenure, but in any event, forwards Jeter and Luther could eventually help the Panthers in similar ways on the wings. While they compete for Dixon's attention, and while Cameron Wright enjoys job security at the 2, Johnson could steal some playing time from Jamel Artis and/or Durand Johnson if he continues to impress with his offense.
Will They Improve Upon 2013-14?
Friendly reminder: Three years ago Jamie Dixon led Pitt to a conference title and number one seed in the NCAA tournament with a starting lineup marginally better than his last one. Anything is possible for the Panthers with him at the helm. But what is probable?
The 2014-15 Panthers will probably concoct a way to reach the neighborhood of 25 wins and finish in the top half of the ACC again. History, plus carryover from the 2013-14 roster, will attest to that.
Pitt has averaged 26 wins per season as the Dixon era enters its 12th year. Dixon has a career win percentage of .663 in conference play, which would give the Panthers 11 or 12 ACC victories if it holds up. What will happen next is not nearly as predictable.
For the Panthers to challenge for a conference crown and enjoy a lengthier postseason run, they need to score more consistently, they need to do a better job matching up with the ACC's established superstars and they need to win a game or two that they aren't "supposed to win." Looking back at some of Pitt's most successful Big East campaigns under Dixon, those are common threads.
Perhaps that means Cam Wright picking up his offensive game, or Michael Young doing the same. It could also mean Josh Newkirk and Jamel Artis taking on more responsibility, or Dixon finding a diamond in the rough from his 2014 recruiting class (Johnson?).
It's one thing to get better on the court, but Pitt also needs to get better off it. Aided by the move to the ACC, Dixon is slowly expanding his recruiting base. He's already got some promising prospects lined up for the next couple years. This program can and will be a flag-bearer in this conference just like it was in its previous one, but it isn't going to happen overnight.
And it probably won't happen this season.
Jamie Dixon's well-documented penchant for doing more with less will keep the Panthers competitive. Their problem will be keeping up with the usual suspects—Duke, North Carolina and others who, somehow, always seem to overcome roster attrition even worse than what Pitt endured.
More questions remain. Will Michael Young start scoring? Will Derrick Randall be more of a presence off the bench? Will we see James Robinson become a more complete point guard?
There's plenty of time to answer them, but in the meantime, it's been a fascinating summer in Pittsburgh, with more to come.
Statistics courtesy of David Tobiczyk, TheACC.com, CBSSports.com and the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations Office. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.