The 1987-88 team led had two bonafide stars with Smith and Jerome Lane, as well as Sean Miller and Jason Matthews. All four were in my top 20 Pitt players of the Big East era that I posted a few weeks ago, and Smith and Lane were in my top 50 Big East players of all-time that I wrote for the NBE Basketball Report a few years ago. That team obviously failed despite those four excellent players but there's no doubt that the talent was there to go all the way.
The only other legitimate Final Four contender in the last 25 years was the 2008-09 season when the Panthers came within a Scottie Reynolds last second shot of reaching the Final Four. That team had two big time stars in DeJuan Blair and Sam Young, and a good, solid point guard in Levance Fields. However, as is often the case in programs that are a step below the North Carolinas and Dukes of the world, there was not enough behind those players and Pitt was one player short.
But just to show you how fast things can change in college basketball, one year after Pitt's worst season in over a decade, things are suddenly looking very good. In fact, if things fall the right way, the Panthers can legitimately be national championship contenders. And, unlike the past, the questions that need to be answered are all within reach.
First of all, let's look who will be here and where they will be in their college career. Lamar Patterson will be a senior and could be one of the better all around players in the ACC, if not the country. I'm not saying he will be a superstar but as a sophomore this season he averaged 9.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, and 3.6 apg, while shooting 41.0% from three and 77.1% from the line. He should only get better and he's already pretty good.
Fellow senior J.J. Moore had many fans wondering if he was going to be a flop for much of this season, and for good reason. Moore's forte was supposed to be his outside shot but he was shooting horribly for much of the season. However, in his final 13 games, the sophomore hit double figures 9 times and averaged 10.5 ppg while shooting 41.7% from three and 77.5% from the line. Like Patterson, he should only get better in two years.
A third senior will be Talib Zanna, who is making slow progress but should also be even better in his fourth year. In the six games of the CBI, he averaged 10.2 ppg and 7.0 rpg while shooting an incredible 73.7% from the field. Whether this means Zanna has arrived or if it was the weak competition of the CBI remains to be seen, but former Pitt assistant Tom Herrion, who recruited Zanna to Pitt, still tells me that he thinks Zanna has a ton of untapped potential.
At guard there will be more experience. Transfer Trey Zeigler will probably have to sit out a year so he will be ready to go in two years. At 6'5", he has the size and athleticism that Pitt hasn't had at the position in many, many years. He's not a three point shooter and his free throw shooting is abysmal, but he can drive and score, he is an excellent rebounder, and he can play defense. His talent level is high and if Dixon can get him to live up to his potential, he will be an elite college player.
His running mate at guard will be elite recruit James Robinson who will be in his second year in the program. If he's not starting at the end of his freshman season he will still be playing a lot and learning the ropes. However you want to look at it, Robinson should be ready to run the point full-time as a sophomore. A smart, heady true point guard with a strong body, excellent passing skills, and solid defense, he should have no trouble running the point the way Dixon wants it run. In fact, with talented offensive players like Patterson, Moore, and Zeigler, at the very least, his assist numbers as a sophomore should be very high.
So at the very least the Panthers should start five talented players, including three seniors and a fourth year junior. That alone will make the Panthers a very good team, and quite possibly a top 10 team. But there's one player that I haven't mentioned yet that is both the biggest question, and potentially the biggest answer. And that's New Zealand center Steven Adams.
Pretty much everybody I've talked to expects Adams to leave for the NBA after one season. Not because he's said that, but because 7-foot centers with good skills simply don't last long in college. They are simply too coveted by the NBA. I'm not saying that Adams will be ready for the NBA. Most players, especially big guys, aren't ready for the NBA, but that doesn't stop them from going. If a player has tantalizing potential, like Adams does, staying in college only has the potential to hurt his draft stock. NBA general managers get seduced by potential and will take a chance on it. If Adams is not great as a freshman it won't hurt him. GMs understand that college freshmen aren't expected to be great. But a 7-footer who shows little as a sophomore will see his stock drop because now suddenly there are questions. That's why almost all big men who can come out early do come out early.
Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes a player does stay when he can leave. Adams may find college basketball too fun to leave. Pitt should be good again next year and Adams may find the season incredibly fun. And he has already shown an almost childlike appreciation of the Oakland Zoo. He also seems overwhelmed by the attention high level high school basketball gets in this country, so going from little New Zealand to the NBA so quickly may be too much for him to take. Maybe he decides that he loves playing in college, loves playing at Pitt, and wants to make it all last a little longer before he can no longer deny his destiny that many adults will no doubt try to hurry him in to.
If Adams stays it's very possible he can be dominant in his sophomore year. While it's somewhat true that the college game is a guards game it's mostly because few teams have a quality big man. If Adams stays for his sophomore year he could give Pitt an immediate, and thorough, mismatch in the paint against every other team in the country.
To be blunt, if Adams stays for a second year, Pitt has the potential to go all the way. An experienced core? Check. Rebounding? In droves. Patterson, Adams, and Zanna are excellent rebounders and Zeigler and Robinson rebound much better than average for their respective positions. The defense should be good with Adams, Zeigler, and Robinson all good defenders. And I haven't even mentioned Malcolm Gilbert, who will be in his third season by then and is an excellent shot blocker. Ball handling will also be better as this is Robinson's forte. Three point shooting, even with Robinson and Zeigler, could be good with Moore and Patterson, along with three I haven't mentioned yet, John Johnson, who shot an impressive 38.4% from three, and the 6'6" duo of Durand Johnson and Chris Jones, both of whom are projected to be good three point shooters.
Of course there are at least two players I haven't mentioned yet because they haven't committed to the Panthers yet. Travon Woodall and Dante Taylor will be gone after next season and a 4/5 and a point guard is exactly what Pitt will need to be even better. Much has been made about 6'7" Philadelphia power forward Savon Goodman, and if he does eventually commit to Pitt, then he will be a sophomore during the 2013-14 season, and he could also be an excellent player by this time. A highly athletic and aggressive rebounder like Goodman would make Pitt vicious in the paint. An athletic point guard to support Robinson is also something that Dixon is already looking for.
Bottom line, the key is Adams. Without him, the Panthers are a very good team that should win a lot of games. But it would probably not be enough to reach the level of the elite programs. What programs like Pitt needs is for everything to fall in place. A transfer from a MAC player who just happens to be the elite shooting guard they've always needed. A wunderkind from New Zealand of all places that Dixon almost literally stumbled upon while catching up with an old friend and teammate on the other side of the world. Those are the kinds of serendipitous occurrences that Pitt needs to get to a higher level. And maybe, just maybe, the cards will finally fall the right way for Dixon and Pitt.