Pittsburgh Basketball: 5 Biggest Adjustments the 2014-15 Panthers Must Make
Last season, Pitt proved its usual formula of deliberate offense and stifling defense would still be good enough to get the team back to the NCAA tournament out of a new conference. However, a fifth-place finish—marginally better than their projected sixth-place finish—proved the Panthers still have work to do to catch up to the powerhouses of the ACC.
Even with an intriguing backcourt and a lot of young talent at its disposal, that offense still needs to be ramped up after graduating two prolific scorers. The Panthers also need greater contributions from those who played lesser roles in the success of the 2013-14 squad.
Let's take a more in-depth look at the adjustments that will be essential to their success in the 2014-15 season.
Build Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood
A Bob Cousy Award watch list selection and a two-time international gold medalist, point guard James Robinson is already one of the most decorated players in recent Pitt history entering his junior season. He's always handled the ball with such awesome responsibility that he was an easy target for Jamie Dixon dating back to his freshman year at DeMatha Catholic (Mitchellville, Md.) High School.
His assist-to-turnover ratio, which ranks among Pitt's all-time greatest, speaks to his skill level. However, in the realm of shooting the rock, "Mr. Consistent," as his high school coach once called him, has been consistently inconsistent. That's the skill the Panthers need him to build.
"I have a long way to go individually. I'm fortunate enough to be on a really good team, which helps," Robinson said after leading Team System One to the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro Am championship with a 115-109 win over Team Shale Attorneys July 23 at Montour (McKees Rocks, Pa.) High School.
Throughout summer ball Robinson meshed particularly well with forward and fellow returnee Michael Young, the main beneficiary of the former's title-game-high 11 assists.
"The biggest thing has been just competing, and playing against a lot of other really good players," Robinson added.
With his team down 13 at the half, he led a scoring rampage that ended with a team-best 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting from the field and 8-of-8 from the foul line. His counterpart, Duquesne point guard Rene Castro, set what is believed to be a PBC Pro Am record with 56 points after launching 33 shots from the field and converting 21.
Hopefully Castro taught Robinson a thing or two offensively. The Butler transfer was 7-of-15 behind the arc in defeat, whereas Robinson only attempted two three-pointers all night and missed them both.
Robinson made the second-most threes on his team in 2013-14, but he didn't pull the trigger much, and he only attempted 2.0 threes per game in conference play. It's never been too big of an ask for him to make big shots in big spots, and in that respect, he needs to do a better job of breaking from his characteristic unselfishness.
Could he and Young get each other going this season?
Finish What They Start
Why else should Robinson shoot more? So that, if he misses, sophomore power forward Michael Young can hustle to the hoop, snag the rebound and finish.
He finished third on the Panthers in total rebounding last season, which could improve with the departures of Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson. Young averaged 10.0 boards per PBC Pro Am regular season game, and he also finished fifth in the league with 25.8 points per contest en route to MVP honors.
"I've been trying to get my body as strong as it can be," Young said of his second summer league experience as a Panther. "Everything this season will fall into place once I get in shape and get my body right."
The 6'9", 235-pound Duquesne native has spent, literally, all summer trying to get it right. Will his hard work pay off?
It will as long as he doesn't leave points on the floor. Young averaged just 6.0 points per game as a freshman, but his 64.1 field goal percentage in PBC Pro Am regular season play was encouraging, as was his 15.5 scoring average on the team's foreign tour through the Bahamas Aug. 1-7.
Holding him to a realistic standard is important. He was only the 14th Panther in history to start the regular season opener as a pure freshman, and, offensively, he certainly wasn't Jamie Dixon's first option. But Young can still make a big difference by being just a little more economical in the forecourt and piling up more second-chance points.
The first of Pitt's two losses to Syracuse last season is a prime example. The Panthers shot a mere 38.3 percent from the field in that Jan. 18 trip to the Carrier Dome, and they missed a lot of easy scoring opportunities down low.
In games against conference giants that can make or break postseason positioning, those are the kind of opportunities Pitt can't afford to waste.
The Panthers are returning eight of their top 10 scorers from the 2013-14 season, so the pantry at The Pete is not bare. But the two departures concern them greatly: forwards Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna.
Although Zanna acquitted himself quite well for someone being played out of position (13.0 points, 8.6 rebounds per game in '13-'14), Pitt has more natural options at center in returnee Joseph Uchebo and JUCO transfer Tyrone Haughton going forward. Its bigger problem is replacing Patterson's productivity on the wing; he finished No. 17 in program history in career scoring before the NBA's Atlanta Hawks acquired him on draft day.
Vanderbilt transfer and local product Sheldon Jeter might be able to provide some help. The erstwhile Beaver Falls (Pa.) star appeared eager to prove himself at his summer league debut, when he flicked the opening tipoff to fellow Beaver County product Cameron Johnson, who put in an uncontested layup before fans could blink.
In other words, it was a typical Jeter play.
The sophomore averaged 20.0 points and 8.0 rebounds through the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am regular season. He can run, he can dunk, and, as he demonstrated in high school, he can add layers to his game. Jeter has bulked up since then, and he's become a better distributor and a better defender.
His challenge has been to play himself back into game shape after sitting out the '13-'14 season before completing his transfer. When he does, his range and his scoring touch could give Pitt a much-needed boost up front.
How big is shooting guard Cam Wright's heart? The Cleveland native forgave LeBron James without batting an eye.
"He's the greatest player in the world. Of course I [want him back]," he chuckled, just days before the prodigal son announced his return to the Cavaliers.
If his scoring average matches his disposition in 2014-15, the Panthers will have one heck of a starting backcourt.
As a redshirt junior, Wright began the season looking very dynamic, rattling off six consecutive games in double figures, punctuated by a fabulous performance versus Duquesne in The City Game. As conference play began, he discreetly slipped back toward career norms, and he ended the season at a 10.5 points-per-game clip.
His productivity at the line became as inconsistent as his productivity from the field. Wright is hoping the adjustments made during summer ball will solve those problems.
"I've been tweaking my jump shot a little bit," he said. "My grad assistants have done a great job helping me."
Wright averaged six points per game better during Pitt's trip to the Bahamas, and he shot a robust 10 of 15 from the field in his last game, a 124-53 win over the Atlantis All-Stars.
But enough about what he did against a team representing a city that may or may not exist. What can Wright do for Pitt when the harsh reality of an ACC schedule that includes five opponents from last year's final AP Top 25 Poll—three from the top 10 alone—slaps the Panthers in their faces?
He'll need to bring stereotypical ACC finesse. He'll need to bring stereotypical Big East brawn, just like old times. In fact, he'll need to bring a happy medium, and whatever else it takes for Pitt's backcourt to produce more points.
"We still know what it takes to be nasty, and rebound and defend," Wright said, "and we know what it means to be in the ACC, and to have to get up and down the floor."
It's the greatest chicken-or-egg question of them all: Exactly how big of a hand has Jamie Dixon had in the Panthers' success, and how big of a hand has he had in their shortcomings?
The answer is never as concrete as the respondent thinks. Dixon's .750 career win percentage as a head coach makes him one of the most accomplished ones of his era, and it reminds restless fans to be careful what they wish for. His more modest postseason win percentage, which stands at .565, grates on those fans.
It's not that Dixon's teams have been full of untapped potential. It's just that their potential hasn't been tapped enough.
According to college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, Pitt ranked No. 19 in Division I in adjusted offensive efficiency (an estimate of how many points a team would score per 100 possessions against an average D-I defense) last season. However, it ranked No. 305 out of the 351 D-I schools in adjusted tempo (the number of possessions per 40 minutes a team would have against a team that plays at an average D-I tempo).
A good coach has his finger on the pulse of his team. A good coach also knows when to take his hands completely off. In recent years, some of the most impressive stretches of basketball this team played came at times when, as players later said, Dixon stopped micromanaging possessions and let his players dictate the tempo.
Calling timeout in the closing seconds at home against Syracuse to properly set his defense was one thing. Calling that same timeout at Notre Dame, when his best player had the ball and a chance to win the game in regulation, was something wholly other.
Sometimes the smartest move a coach makes is the one he doesn't.
There is plenty of new talent for the Panthers to integrate in 2014-15, and new heroes must be found in order to take the program to the next level. Could center Joseph Uchebo be one of them?
Uchebo (6'10", 245 lbs.), a junior, averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds per game during the PBC Pro Am regular season slate, and he averaged 7.5 points and 12.5 rebounds during those exhibition games in the Bahamas a month ago.
As the only remaining Panther with any Division I experience who claims the 5 as his natural position, Uchebo certainly seems ready for more responsibilities. But he can't be alone if Pitt wishes to climb the ACC totem pole. This team wants to challenge for a conference title, and it wants to do it soon.
"That's still our bullseye," James Robinson said. "Now we've got to put in the work."
Statistics courtesy of David Tobiczyk, TheACC.com, CBSSports.com, KenPom.com (subscription required) and the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations Office. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.