1. The absence of Ashton Gibbs- I hate that it has to come to this, but his career did not have the great ending that everybody hoped for. I don't care if he is averaging a team high 16.7 ppg, or is making 39.8% of the his threes and 85.4% of his free throws. Those are just statistics. Pitt is not about statistics. Pitt is about leadership, toughness, consistency, and heart. Gibbs showed little of any of those traits. In the offseason I was told that Gibbs really wanted out of college and when he was told he wasn't good enough to get into the NBA, he sulked and pouted. Unfortunately that continued into the season. When he was on, he was the Gibbs of old. When things didn't go his way, he moped, complained, and failed to show the leadership that a senior, and best player on the team should display. He would even refuse to talk to the media after games sometimes, something a true leader would never do.
Bottom line, many can't grasp that losing a player with Gibbs' statistical output could be a good thing, but every year in sports a team loses a player with great stats only to become better. Stats aren't everything. Teamwork, chemistry, leadership, and heart is what wins in any sport, and even more so in Pitt basketball. Without those traits, three pointers will mean nothing in the end. And Gibbs did not have those traits this season.
2. The absence of Nasir Robinson- This is not the same as Gibbs. Robison is what he is, and what he truly is, is not a starting power forward in the Big East. The fact that he was for two seasons is the fault of Jamie Dixon, not Robinson. There is a place for Robinson on any team. He works hard, has talent, and has heart. But he was woefully overmatched as a 6'5" (at best) power forward in a league as good as the Big East. He would best serve the team coming off the bench where his enthusiasm and passion would give the team a spark.
Robinson was forced to play the four because of the failure of Talib Zanna, Dante Taylor, and Khem Birch to seize the position. Birch's departure has been well documented, but Zanna and Taylor are true centers in Pitt's system. Dixon likes his power forwards to be mobile and good passers. Perfect examples are Levon Kendall, Chevon Troutman, and for awhile, Sam Young. Zanna and Taylor, while not bad players, are not ideal fours for Pitt. Unfortunately Dixon's inability to find a quality four means either Zanna or Taylor will have to be the starting four next season. They will still get minutes at center but will finally be forced to play more at the four because of...
3. The arrival of Steven Adams- Trust me when I tell you, unless Adams totally looks lost as a freshman, and that's doubtful, he will only be at Pitt for one season. That doesn't mean he will average 20 points and 10 rebounds for Pitt as a freshman. In fact, it may be more like 10 points and 8 rebounds a game. But his value will go well beyond just his stats. There's a reason why every basketball team in history does their best to get 7'0" tall players, why they get drafted in the first round despite mediocre production, and why they get paid tens of millions of dollars in the NBA even if they aren't all-stars.
A player of Adams' size and talent has a trickle down effect on every teammate who is on the floor with him. On either end of the floor, Adams will have to be accounted for and game planned for because he will cause terrible matchup problems. With such attention on him, the rest of the team gets more freedom. Suddenly, when a player drives, the low post defender assigned to Adams can't leave him because he knows a quick pass to Adams would be a guaranteed two points. Defenses would also have to collapse on Adams meaning perimeter shooters will have an extra second to get off a shot. On defense, he will control the paint. No player in the league will be strong enough to push him out of there. A Panthers defender gets beat on the perimeter and gets into the lane? Well, good luck because the next person you will run into is an athletic 7'0" monster. Those are things that won't show up in the box score, but will win Pitt games.
4. The arrival of James Robinson- The 6'3" point guard won't begin the season as a starter, and may not be a starter all season unless he pushes Tray Woodall to the two, but make no mistake about it, Robinson will play a lot next season. And that's great news for Pitt. Physically and mentally strong, Robinson is the true point guard that the Panthers have missed since Levance Fields graduated. When he steps on the floor for the first time, he will already be the best defender and ball handler of any guard on the roster. He is not a great athlete, but he was born to be a quarterback on the basketball court, and when things get iffy at the end of the game, or when the defensive pressure is about to sink the Panthers, look for him to have the ball in his hands. There are plays at the end of a game that don't show up in the statistics, but are the difference between winning and losing. The Pitt teams of recent years made those plays. The current Panthers have not. Robinson will help to bring that skill back.
5. The continued development of Lamar Patterson- I know a lot of Pitt fans don't have faith in Patterson but as a redshirt sophomore he is actually a pretty good player already, and he should only get better. His defense is lacking, and he has to get better at that facet of his game, but he can score in the paint and from beyond the arc, he can pass, and he can rebound. In fact, despite being only 6'5", he is probably more of the Pitt type of four than Zanna or Taylor. But assuming he stays at the three, the inside presence of Adams, combined with the departure of the Panthers two top scorers, could mean Patterson becomes a much bigger part of the offense. In fact, I don't think it's crazy to see him perhaps getting 12-15 ppg, combined with his excellent passing and rebounding.
6. Better ball protection- The Panthers success over the last decade was not because they were more talented, it was because they were more efficient. A major part of that efficiency was not giving the ball away. That changed this season. Woodall was the biggest culprit and he will be the main ball handler again next season. But as I previously stated, it's likely that Robinson will handle a good portion of the ball handing next season, and he protects the ball with his life. The next two biggest culprits are Robinson and Gibbs, and both will be gone. John Johnson has also been adept at protecting the ball and as of now he will be the starting two.
7. Better defense- This one is simple. Neither Gibbs nor Robinson were even mediocre defensively while Adams and Robinson are both excellent defensively. The very fact that Pitt will have a center and a point guard who are excellent defenders will go a long way in making the entire defense better.
Summary- Don't get me wrong. I'm saying that the Panthers are guaranteed to be a top ten team again next year. But I do think they will be an NCAA team again. That may sound crazy considering the two top scorers are graduating, but there is much more to basketball than scoring. I don't mean to continue to dump on Gibbs and Robinson, but because they are the two main players on this team, this season was doomed from the beginning. Gibbs was a very good player for three years, but he checked out last year. Robinson was overmanned. Neither can play defense, neither are highly talented athletically, and neither are vocal leaders. That's not who you want leading your team. And in basketball, where there are only five players on the floor at once, two players can make a big difference.
Who will be the new leaders? That's the question. Woodall, Patterson, and Taylor are probably the best bets, but it remains to be seen. Adams and Robinson have the charisma that true leaders have but they will be freshmen. And the team is still without an ideal shooting guard or power forward so that's another problem.
But Pitt is always a perfect example of the phrase "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts". A seven footer here, a tough ball handler there, a little more experience throughout, and a chance to regroup with a much better attitude. Put it all together and I think the Panthers are a top 25 team again.