Perimeter Players: Senior Tray Woodall has had his share of ups and downs in his career, but now with his experience and change in roles he may finally break through as one of the better players in the Big East. The New Jersey native was never the quintessential point guard, even though his assists totals are very good. He is also not the ideal two guard either because he's only 5'11" and he would have trouble guarding big, athletic shooting guards. But with the emergence of true freshman James Robinson at the point, head coach Jamie Dixon has been playing Woodall at the two. Because of Robinson's strong 6'3" body, he could be capable of guarding any big two guard.
Robinson is not exceptionally quick, but he's so strong and smart that he's an excellent defender. Woodall is only average defensively which is surprising because you would think his quickness would let him have over two steals a game.
From an offensive standpoint, Robinson is an extremely smart quarterback and an intelligent and accurate passer, while also having enough shooting and driving ability to keep defenses honest. He's basically a bigger, more athletic Levance Fields so to say he's going to be huge for Pitt's program over his four year career is an understatement.
With Robinson running the point, Woodall moves to shooting guard, and that is a move I really like. While defense may be a bit of problem, offensively this gives Pitt two excellent passers and it enables Woodall to concentrate more on providing offense instead of quarterbacking and trying to score at the same time. Woodall surprised many last season when he hit a very good 38.6% of his threes. He also made an excellent 81% of his free throws and as he's a much better free throw shooter than Robinson, Pitt can easily put the ball in his hands to cement games from the line.
In reserve, sophomore John Johnson should be the first player off the bench, both at the two and the point. At 6'1" he's also not the ideal two guard size but he was a pleasant surprise as an outside shooter last season hitting 38.4% of his threes. He also made an excellent 83.3% of his free throws. His defense and offensive consistency must improve but that should happen in his sophomore season.
At small forward, the starter will be Lamar Patterson, who may be the program's top overall player this season. At 6'5", the junior is an excellent passer and a good rebounder, while also turning into a real offensive threat. He doesn't have above the rim athleticism or great quickness, but he uses his solid frame to score in the paint and his shooting is burgeoning on excellence.
Patterson averaged 9.6 ppg last season but averaged 13.3 ppg in the CBI tournament along with 49.1% from the field, 46.7% from three, and a superb 17 for 20 from the line. On the season, he hit 41% of his threes. It remains to be seen if Patterson can truly be a big time offensive weapon but 15 ppg is not out of the question.
The reserves behind Patterson, Woodall, and Johnson on the perimeter depends on whether or not Dixon wants offense of defense. If he wants defense, 6'5" sophomore Cameron Wright will get the call. The Ohio native's offensive game is limited but he is an above the rim athlete who has the potential to be a defensive stopper, while also adding some offense in transition. His offensive weaknesses were exposed last season because he was unable to bring in any offense when called on, but that problem has been solved by adding 6'5" Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler.
Much has been made of Zeigler's slow start early in the season, but in my opinion it only shows how much talent this team has because the coaches aren't forced to play somebody who isn't a well rounded player yet. Zeigler played for his father at Central Michigan and to be blunt he was left to do whatever he wanted on the court. The result of that is that Zeigler doesn't know how to play on a team like Pitt that demands every player do the little things.
But make no mistake about it. Zeigler has ability, especially on offense. He is a horrid free throw shooter and not a good three point shooter, so you aren't likely to see him at the end of a game, but he is excellent driving the lane and scoring. He will provide some instant offense at times this season, and if he ever gets the nuances down, not to mention his defense, he could see significant minutes eventually.
There is also small forward Durand Johnson, who redshirted last season. The redshirt freshman has great 6'6" height and can be a white hot outside shooter at times, so he could also come in at times when the offense is struggling.
Lastly, 6'5" true freshman Chris Jones has shown in practices that his length, intangibles, athleticism, and all around game means he should have a bright future, but there doesn't seem to be much room for him this season. Therefore I suspect he will be redshirted.
Low Post Players: For the inside players, all eyes will obviously be in 7'0" new Zealand man child Steven Adams. Much has been made about the fact that Adams has not been a force offensively yet, but for the life of me I don't understand why anybody would expect that. It's extremely rare for a big guy like Adams to have much offensive game early in his carrer. In fact, I've predicted that he will probably somewhere around 8-10 ppg this season, and that's mostly going to be because of put backs and free throws. But that doesn't mean Adams won't be a major force this season.
Where Adams will make a huge contribution is in rebounding and defense. He is so big, strong, and active that I would be shocked if he didn't at least have 8-10 rpg this season and 2-3 bpg. There's a reason why kids this big and talented are so coveted at every level of basketball. What he will bring to the court goes beyond numbers. He will take opponents out of their game plan on both ends of the court.
To help Adams rebound and defend in the low blocks, the Panthers will start junior Talib Zanna at the four. At 6'9" and 230 pounds, the bull strong Zanna may finally be able to come into his own now that most defenses will be geared to contain Adams. Former Pitt assistant coach Tom Herrion told me not long ago that he thinks Zanna's ceiling may be higher than anybody on the roster (this was before Adams). In the six game CBI tournament last season Zanna averaged a very promising 11.8 ppg and 7.0 rpg.
Maybe the most talented offensive player on the team will not even begin the season as a starter, though if 6'6" junior J.J. Moore continues to improve as quickly as he did last season he will be hard to keep off the floor. In Moore's last 13 games last season, he hit double figures 9 times. In those 13 games he averaged 11.8 ppg and made 20 of 48 threes, an excellent 41.7%. He even got to the line a lot and made 31 of 40 free throws.
The senior veteran Dante Taylor will spell Adams in the middle and though he's never lived up to what was expected for him in his career, he should be a solid influence on Adams. Behind him will be 6'11" Malcolm Gilbert, who still isn't developed enough to see a lot of minutes, though he may be able to help in future years.
Bottom line: It's no secret that I wasn't a fan of the makeup of recent Pitt teams so I'm not being a homer when I say that this team can be very good. The veterans Woodall, Patterson, and Moore all have the potential to be 15 ppg scorers. I doubt that will happen because there's only one basketball, but that's the offensive potential on this team. And that's not even including Ziegler, who has averaged that at Central Michigan.
Ballhandling, a weakness in the recent past, should be significantly better with the steady and smart Robinson running the team. And while Woodall isn't as good with the ball, the fact that he isn't forced to quarterback the team the entire game will only make him better.
With the offense apparently not being as problem, that leaves the two biggest facets of Pitt basketball historically- rebounding and defense. Rebounding will definitely not be a problem and I see no reason why Pitt isn't one of the best rebounding teams in the nation this season. Adams, Zanna, Patterson, and Robinson are all excellent rebounders at their respective positions.
Defense was a major weakness for the Panthers last season and while they have more offensive players than defensive players in the program, the two newcomers, Adams and Robinson, should make a huge difference. Robinson is aggressive and tough at the top of the key, and in the rare occasion that he lets somebody get by him, that player will be met by Adams. Will the Panthers be great defensively? Probably not. Will they be good enough? I say yes.
A nice mix of offense and defense, athleticism and toughness, youth and experience should excite Pitt fans. Especially since Dixon is too good of a coach to not correct last season's problems. He has a chip on his shoulder, as do the players.
Prediction: 26-7 record and finishing No.15 in the nation