The Pitt Panthers will enter this season utterly incapable of playing the underdog card. The program’s success under Jamie Dixon is no longer a well-kept secret. Pitt is now one of the elite programs in the nation. The Panthers enter this season ranked No. 5, the highest preseason ranking in school history.
This year everybody around the program knows that Pitt will raise the bar and overcome their recent failure to get past the Sweet 16. The pieces are in place—it is just a matter of putting them all together.
Unfortunately, “putting them all together” is easier said than done. This Pitt team is not a team without flaws, and if they are not careful, it will be another disappointing March in Oakland. I have put together the main point/counterpoint arguments in order to illustrate what basketball fans can expect from the Panthers this year.
Reason for Success: Sam Young and DeJuan Blair
Last season these two frontcourt mates combined for around 30 points and 15 rebounds a game. Sam Young is a solid player whose knees are as healthy as ever. Blair has shed 10 pounds in the offseason and is poised to build on his successful freshman campaign.
Reason for Failure : Sam Young and DeJuan Blair
Both players have their eyes on the NBA, which may or may not be realistic. If either of them, particularly Blair, starts going outside of the system to prove to NBA scouts he can shoot the jumper, then we have a problem. Additionally, Sam Young is expected to play some small forward this season, a position he struggled with as a sophomore.
Reason for Success : Levance Fields
In my opinion, Fields is the best point guard in the conference (I can hear the screams of “homer” from Storrs and Syracuse already). He is a solid defender, an underrated shooter, and a fantastic ball handler.
Most importantly, his nickname is “The General” for a reason. No player has had a better command of the system since Dixon took over as head coach. When he plays, the team is enough of a collective force offensively to make opponents work on defense.
Reason for Failure : Levance Fields
Levance had a second surgery on his broken foot back on Aug. 30. He will not return to practice until Election Day. This is important because Levance has always had a bit of a weight problem. This means he might still be playing himself into shape by the time conference play rolls around.
If he is playing out of shape, he is only increasing his chances for injury. Without Fields, Pitt is a very average team.
Reason for Success: The New Three-Point Line
Pitt has never been a great three-point shooting team anyway, and this year will be no different as the Panthers lose their two best three-point shooters from last season. This move should not affect them as much as a team like Notre Dame, who is more reliant on perimeter offense.
Reason for Failure : The New Three-Point Line
It remains to be seen what affect, if any, the new three-point line will have on college basketball. If it turns out to separate the great shooting teams like Notre Dame and Villanova from the average shooting teams like Pitt, it could be a long season.
Reason for Success: The Bench
Pitt fans have been waiting for Tyrell Biggs to make the proverbial leap since he stepped on campus. Now the burly 6’8” senior has a chance to seize the opportunity and possibly become the premier sixth man in the conference.
Biggs has always been relatively well-skilled and has the ability to play the 4 or 5. Unfortunately, he has been the rare Pitt Panther who seems to shy away from physical play.
What gives me hope for Biggs was the way he played in the Big East tournament last season. Almost as if somebody hit a light switch, Biggs came off the bench ready to bang bodies and dive on the floor. If he can carry that into this season, he will be able to provide valuable minutes.
Gary McGhee has also turned some heads early on. Gary is a big man at 6’10” and 245 lbs. However, saying he was raw last season would be kind.
If McGhee can be serviceable for 10-15 minutes a game, that gives Pitt four big bodies to bang down low. It also gives Pitt 20 fouls to work with, which is important when you like to beat your opponents into submission.
Reason for Failure: The Bench
While Pitt does have big bodies on the bench, they lack experience everywhere else. Aside from Fields, Pitt has four other guards with a combined total of one varsity letter. Starting small forward Gilbert Brown is battling a stress fracture, meaning Pitt will have to turn to freshman Nasir Robinson to fill that role.
By all accounts the young players are capable, but it would be unfair to say they will definitely provide the backcourt depth Pitt needs to be an elite team. Pitt’s youngsters will have to grow up quickly, or else it will be yet another disappointing March.
The one thing Pitt has in its favor is a weak non-conference schedule, which means that Levance Fields and Gil Brown can take their time with their injury rehabs. I do not believe there is another team outside of UNC that has three players as talented as Levance Fields, Sam Young, and DeJuan Blair. In addition, a healthy Gilbert Brown is a sound fourth scoring option.
I don’t believe it is unreasonable to think that one of four other guards on the roster can emerge as a sound backcourt mate for Fields. Guard depth, however, will be an issue throughout the season.
One thing that cannot be downplayed is that Sam Young and Levance Fields are seniors and that Young passed on the draft (when his stock was the highest) to come back to Pitt. The two of them, along with Tyrell Biggs, have the opportunity to become the most successful senior class in the history of the program.
I believe that the team has strong enough leaders to keep DeJuan Blair’s eyes off the NBA and on the task at hand. I think that this team will be the second-best team in the conference behind UConn, get a two seed in the Big Dance and finally make the Elite Eight.
No matter what, consider the bar at Pitt officially raised.