The 2009-2010 University of Pittsburgh Panthers mens’ basketball team is in for a year of transformation. For the first time in a decade, the Panthers will not be competing for the Big East Championship and they certainly won’t be contending for the National Championship. In fact, they will be fortunate to finish above .500 in Big East play.
Nearly every team suffers this cycle through the years…except the Pitt Panthers. When looked at closely enough, it comes down to one reason and one reason only: By deciding to forgo his final two years at Pitt to enter the NBA draft, DeJuan Blair has single-handedly ended Pitt’s 2009-2010 dreams of competing for a National Championship.
Right about now, you’re thinking I’m crazy. Pitt lost three key players. Sam Young, Levance Fields and Blair. Not just one. THREE. How could the blame fall squarely on Blair? I’ll explain. First, let’s examine why Mr. Blair was so important to Pitt.
If you analyze Pitt’s two losses this year, Texas and Indiana, a few things stick out:
1 . Pitt is incredibly and uncharacteristically inexperienced.
2 . Offensively, they have absolutely no low post presence at all. No Lett, no Troutman, no Gray, and no Blair.
3. They have not one player that defenses need to game plan for, let alone double team. No Knight, no Krauser, no Jaron Brown, and no Zavackas
The Pitt teams we’ve grown accustom to watching in the Howland-Dixon era have never experienced these struggles. Look at the lineups from the previous five years . Blair is the only freshman to log significant minutes.
In their 74-64 loss to Indiana, four freshman played 10 or more minutes. Travon Woodall leading all with 23.
Pitt’s two seniors, Jermaine Dixon and Chase Adams, have a combined one year of experience with Pitt. Both transferred from smaller programs.
A telltale sign that these are not your typical Pitt Panthers? Indiana out-shot Pitt at the line 34-17. Two to one! Do you know why this shouldn’t happen? Because it only happens when you play Duke in Cameron.
In the last decade, Pitt has not been the team to light up the scoreboard. Their strategy has been to slow the game down, work deep into the shot clock, rebound and play defense. They have, however, always been able to count on one or two players to hit a big shot or make a timely play when the pressure strikes late in the game (think Ronald Ramon at WVU, Levance Fields against Duke at The Garden).
This year…? Nobody. Pitt has already taken the ball out of Point Guard Ashton Gibbs' hands in a seemingly desperate attempt to free him up for his painfully awkward, yet somehow effective, shot.
Gibbs may score points, but making Woodall the PG is only adding to Pitt’s woes. Go ahead and play a freshman at PG when your supporting cast can generate scoring (think Greg Paulus dishing to Redick and Sheldon Williams). Play a freshman at PG when his only reason for being in school is some silly NBA rule.
The bulk of the scoring now depends on Pitt’s role players. Jermaine Dixon, Gilbert Brown and Brad Wanamaker have all returned from last year’s team, but not one has shown that he can consistently create his own shot.
Big man Gary McGee brings everything except offense. McGee is a prime example of what Pitt basketball has built its success on: defends aggressively, rebounds well, sleeps in the weight room, maintains a fantastic head of hair. Just admit you love that hair . How about the Lloyd Christmas look from Aaron Gray? Or Vanilla Ice by Levon Kendall? Unfortunately for Pitt, despite having the frame of Apollo Creed circa 1980, McGee on the offense end of the floor is no more coordinated than this chick .
To illustrate Pitt's success over the last 10 years and the devastation of losing Blair early to the draft, I point to the assembly line. Ben Howland is Henry Ford. Howland created Pitt’s assembly line a decade ago.
It’s simple, but brilliant. He built this assembly line based on the belief that every Pitt player would stay four or five years…and he could do this. The truth is, none of their players have ever been highly touted enough to believe they would ever enter the NBA draft early. Blair was no different.
Arriving at Pitt, a freshman sees limited minutes and seldom high-pressure situations. The fledglings learn as they practice with their older, more experienced teammates. As sophomores they slowly begin to creep off the bench, but only upon reaching upperclassman status do these athletes have the opportunity to play considerable minutes on the court.
In a power conference like the Big East, Pitt’s boys are up against the likes of Carmello Anthony, Ben Gordon, Caron Butler, Emeka Okafor and Terrence Williams on a nightly basis. Pitt has been able to close the talent gap with their experience. Veteran players make fewer mistakes. They understand the college game better and can take advantage of younger, often more talented, athletes.
As a result of Pitt’s four year plan with players, even with graduating many influential seniors, the team has never skipped a beat. They did not miss a step when Chevy Troutman and Julius Page left after the '04 season, nor did they falter after losing Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall a few years later. This history convinces me that the recent loss of Sam Young and Levance Fields has been meaningless.
In order to explain the effect of DeJuan Blair’s exit on the Pitt assembly line, I present you with this commercial . Everyone moves smoothly through the lunch line paying with their check card until the guy paying with cash screws everything up. DeJuan Blair is the cash. Blair left for the NBA and everything went to hell. Players had to change their role in the assembly line to compensate—Gibbs moving to SG. Players who were not ready for the spotlight, like the four freshman who played 10 minutes plus against Indiana, were thrust into it.
Blair stays and none of this ensues. The line chugs along smoothly. Pitt still has its go to scorer who adds an important veteran presence. Gibbs stays at PG. Pitt’s role players, Dixon and company, remain role players. Blair’s 30 minutes a game allows freshmen to learn from the bench and from practice. Most important, Blair can help Gary McGee look less terrible on offense.
That said, the future is very bright for Pitt. The current team in place has six underclassman, four of which are freshman. With all of the floor time these novices will play, in a year or two this will be the most experienced team Pitt has ever had. Assuming, that is, one of these freshman isn’t the next DeJuan Blair...