Monday, March 25, 2013

Why Pitt has struggled and how to fix it

Another season, another disappointing early exit for Pitt fans.  Why does it keep happening?  Is it style? Talent? Both?  Let's first look at where the program is under Jamie Dixon, and then how they can get back on track, and maybe even better.

Last season was the first truly mediocre season of Dixon's tenure, and even a CBI championship couldn't save a moribund season.  The program did rally some this season.  I predicted in the preseason that the Panthers would be 26-7 and they ended up 24-9, yet somehow it still seemed to many that the Panthers didn't live up to expectations.

Dixon did a great job to get the Panthers to 24-9 with two freshman starters, neither of whom are stars yet.  And with a top scorer averaging only 11.5 ppg.  Included in those 24 wins was a 28 point win at Georgetown, a 15 point win at Villanova, a 10 point win against Syracuse, a 10 point win at Cincinnati, another 9 point win against Villanova, an even a 3 point loss at possible eventual national champion Louisville. That's some impressive coaching for a team with such obvious weaknesses. But now let's look at why in the last two seasons the team had such weaknesses.

The most obvious problem is that Dixon has missed in recruiting too often over the past few years.  Tray Woodall, Lamar Patterson, Talib Zanna, and J.J. Moore are solid talents, but Woodall has graduated without reaching stardom and the latter three are down to their last season to reach that level. While it's possible that could happen for any of them, there hasn't been any signs that will happen.

Beyond that, Trey Zeigler was a transfer that even Duke wanted, but after watching him during this season one has to wonder why.  He's also down to his last season and he's another one that probably isn't going to reach stardom in his senior season next year.  The same goes for Cameron Wright who will be a redshirt junior.  The jury is still out on redshirt Chris Jones and rising redshirt sophomore Durand Johnson, though the latter has shown signs of being an offensive sniper.

The only probable top end talent in the entire program is freshmen Steven Adams and James Robinson. Adams is far ahead of most 7'0" freshman and Robinson mostly played well as a rare starting freshman point guard in the Big East.  They are the future of the program and the main reason why there's hope.

While it's obviously great that Dixon landed two excellent prospects, their presence also sheds light on the recent misses.  Dante Taylor and Khem Birch were McDonald's All-Americans.  Neither lived up to what was expected of them.  Taylor peaked as a solid reserve, and Birch was a total mismatch for the program then transferred out midway through his freshman season.

Then there are the other transfers.  Dwight Miller, J.J. Richardson, Isaiah Epps, Malcolm Gilbert, and John Johnson also moved on in the past few years.  The most glaring observation one could take from that list is that none of them were projected to be big time players even if they stayed.  At best, Gilbert could eventually fit into the rotation, and Johnson probably would have been a career reserve.

Like Woodall, Epps was rated highly as a sophomore, but saw his stock drop like a rock before signing. Many other schools saw warning signs that pointed to both being not as good as was first hoped, and stopped recruiting them.  Pitt, on the other hand, stuck with them, hoping that they would reclaim their past glory.  They did not. Woodall became a good player, but nothing more, and Epps showed nothing.

Miller and Richardson were brought in late to max out the roster and to be designated rebounders. Both were obviously failed experiments.

But the most frustrating transfer may have been Gilbert.  Granted, he was probably never going to be a big star, but when he transferred Dixon stated that even before signing Gilbert, that he was always going to transfer so that he can play with his brother.  What?  What was the point of using a scholarship on him, and spending time in practice teaching him to play basketball, if you knew he was going to leave anyway?  Couldn't that scholarship have gone to, at the very least, a 7'0" project that was going to stay?  Or how about a 6'5" shooting guard who is a great athlete but is raw?  Or a great three point shooter who maybe is not that great of an athlete?  There are many more projects that make more sense.

That dovetails into one of Dixon's biggest problems, and that's that he too often takes players with limited upsides.  Woodall was a 5'11" shooting guard who wasn't a three point shooter when he was signed.  Exactly where did Dixon think he was going to go with him?  Woodall maxed out what he could do at Pitt, and he was far from a bad player, but when he's the best player on your team, you have to think it's a miracle Pitt won as much as they have.  Woodall is a good player to have on your team.  But Robinson is a strongly built 6'3" point guard with natural point guard skills.  He can easily improve his shooting and get in shape enough to be a very good college player.  Especially since he's considered a top 50 prospect when he came out. That's very different than a 5'11" shooting guard that you have to teach to play point guard and who isn't rated in the top 100.  And Woodall was taken very early in the recruiting cycle.  There was no reason to jump on him so soon.

But taking Woodall alone wasn't a problem. He turned out to be a good player and helped the team. But he was forced to start because Dixon then followed up with more suspect guards. In the next year, Dixon brought in no more point guards.  The following year he added Isaiah Epps.  So that's the point guards that Dixon was counting on?  Really?  The next year the program added John Johnson, yet another small shooting guard that Pitt tried to turn into a Big East point guard.

Maybe Pitt can't land a McDonald's All-American point guard, but come one, there's no reason why the Panthers couldn't land at least one top 100 point guard between Levance Fields in 2005 and Robinson in 2012. That's simply bad recruiting and bad evaluation.

The same situation exists at shooting guard.  Wright is a lengthy athlete, but he was not considered a good outside shooter when he signed. To his credit he has developed into a serviceable player.  And even though Ohio State, who he originally committed to, gave up on him because his stock dropped, the Panthers continued to pursue him.  See a trend developing?

But, like Woodall, Wright is good to have in the program.  But only in a group of more talented players.  Ashton Gibbs was one that did come through, and even though all he could do was shoot, at least he had one thing that he could do extremely well.  He became a total malcontent in his senior year, and that malaise seems to have lingered into this season's team, but overall the staff did good with his recruitment.  But, again, there wasn't enough talent in the rest of the guards to utilize him better.  Gibbs was even forced to play way out of position at point guard before Brad Wanamaker was forced to cover for him.  And as a two guard he was limited athletically to be an all around force.  That's okay if there are others to do what he could not, but when you are forced to have your small forward run the offense, you are lacking in quality guards. In a nutshell, Gibbs was a shooting guard playing point guard, but not really, and Wanamaker was built like a shooting guard, playing small forward, but with point guard possibilities.  That sums up Dixon at Pitt perfectly. Nobody perfect for any one spot but still winning a lot of games.

After Gibbs, Dixon added no new true shooting guards in 2009, Wright in 2010, none in 2011, and Chris Jones in 2012. Is it any wonder why Pitt can't score?

At the forward spot, there were some solid players like Nasir Robinson, Wanamaker, and Patterson but none were the elite athlete and scoring combination that the great programs need.  Like Jaron Brown before them, Dixon instead went with power forwards in small forward bodies. You can still win a lot of games like that but the teams who go far in the NCAA tournament have 6'6' athletes who are scoring 15 ppg. It's the equivalent of having a first baseman who hits 10 home runs. He could be a good player, but if you have a first baseman with 10 home runs and your opponent has a first baseman with 30 home runs, then eventually you're going to lose.  Ideally, your point guard distributes, your center and power forward defend and rebound, and your shooting guard and small forward scores.  And when you are playing power forwards at small forward and point guards at shooting guard, you aren't going to score at those positions.

Hopefully, Dixon has realized lately that he needs something different at the position and has added 6'6" athletic shooters in Moore and Durand Johnson, and 6'5" shooting guard Chris Jones.  Moore shows flashes but it looks very much like Dixon doesn't know how to handle him.  He is a great athlete but he rarely gets to show it. Johnson can shoot, and little else, but he's only a redshirt freshman.  The hope is that he can defend enough that Dixon will let him play more.

It's no secret that Dixon can flat out coach with what he has. Anybody who doesn't get that just isn't paying attention. In his ten years at Pitt he has beaten a lot of much more talented teams than what he was playing with. But it's also no secret that he doesn't have as much due to his own poor recruiting and player evaluation.

I know people don't like the system, but the system is not the biggest problem. Dixon's system is about rebounding, defense, and offensive efficiency.  Nobody can argue that that is a helluva system for any coach.  The problem is talent.

When Dixon had DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, and Levance Fields, he came very close to getting to the Final Four.  But there was very little else behind those three, though some eventually went on to being good players in future years. Other Dixon teams didn't have that kind of top end talent, but it shows just how excellent of a coach he is when he takes a team of Gibbs, Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, and Gary McGhee to a No.1 seed.  The Blair, Young, and Fields team was also a No.1 seed and went further. Unless you are a rare Cinderella team, only highly talented teams get to the Final Four, and it's no wonder why the Pitt team with the most high end talent went the furthest in the tournament.

That's why Adams sticking around is so important.  As a junior he could be a force at the Blair level, while Robinson could be at the Fields level.  That leaves the Young spot, a wing who can score in bunches. It's the same bugaboo that has haunted Dixon for most of the decade. But as I explained previously he has nobody to blame but himself.

In the past few days, fans and media alike have been criticizing Dixon for his style of play, and how his players need to look more to offense and have more fun.  There's definitely something to that but one would have to be naive to think that Dixon is suddenly going to channel Andy Enfield.  The truth is, his team didn't have trouble scoring when he had Young on the wing, Blair carving out space in the paint, and Fields throwing perfect passes to both. No, the trouble is definitely recruiting. It's high level talent that gets you to Final Fours. It's coaching that gets you a lot of wins.

Dixon lets it be known what he's looking for and the assistants go out to look for those players.  They then return to Dixon when they find somebody that fits the bill.  So these mismatched small forwards and guards lay at the feet of Dixon.  Worse yet, I don't think Dixon believes he can get some of the top recruits in the nation.  The truth is, he would lose out on many, but it doesn't seem like he even tries very hard at them.  I once asked a member of the Pitt staff about recruiting and he replied that one of the factors in deciding who Dixon will target is "who he thinks he can get".  To me, that is very telling. Shouldn't a nationally known, and highly successful program assume, at least initially, that they can get anybody?  Why so pessimistic?  Ralph Willard pulled top 25 guard Vonteego Cummings out of Georgia while Dixon is settling for former top 100 players who has seen their stock plummet.  Find a top 50 wing who can score and go hard after him. Hell, he could start from day one in the ACC next to a 7'0" lottery pick, and in front of some of the best fans in the country. You only need one of them to buy into that.  But you have to go hard at the kid.  Not all great recruiters recruit to just Kentucky and North Carolina. Great recruiters at lesser programs pull in the occasional gem, too. There's no reason why Pitt can't be one of them.  Dixon is not a good closer at all and it's his biggest weakness.

I was once talking to a well known, respected national basketball writer a few years back about whether or not Pitt will go after Herb Pope.  He told me "with kids like that you have to get your hands dirty sometimes and Jamie doesn't like to get his hands dirty. It's often a circus with the top kids and Jamie doesn't want to go there".  What I have to say to that is, Jamie better learn to go there. I'm not saying to do anything against the rules, I'm saying make strong connections and don't take no for an answer. Yeah, Pope was a train wreck, and so was Birch, who had all kinds of bad people trying to influence him. But you have to try with that kind of talent because those are the ones more often than not who will get you to the Elite 8 and beyond.  Charles Smith, Brian Shorter, and Adams were all top 10 prospects.  Jerome Lane, Chris Taft, and Blair were top 25.  Young was top 50.  I think you see the point.  If you want great college players, you need to recruit great prospects.  Seems obvious, but Dixon doesn't always do that.  Especially at guard where Robinson is the only guard in his entire tenure that is even on the cusp of being a top 50 prospect.

To sum it up, Dixon is a phenomenal coach.  What he's been able to accomplish with the talent he has on hand is sometimes amazing.  On the other hand, he's his own worst enemy.  I feel that he's so close with the administration at Pitt that nobody will tell him that he needs to make some changes. And after a ten year extension, I don't see them telling him how to run his program at this point.

Ideally, the administration should let Dixon know that if he needs an ace recruiter, they will give him the money to do it. I don't think Bill Barton has even signed anybody since he's been at Pitt, and previously he was the assistant at Marshall.  That's not good enough.

And then Dixon himself has to change.  He's no longer the boy wonder.  He's 47-years old now, and this is his last chance for greatness at Pitt. Nationally, and locally, he's now known as the guy who got a long extension for flopping in the tournament every year.  And with his constant pay raises, and the fact that it's now pretty much known that nobody else will be coming for him, the pressure is on like never before.  It's time to change his recruiting philosophy.  Time to recruit hard against the best programs out there, and start bringing in some wing talent.  He has the center and the point guard to help make people forget about his failures.  But only if he has learned from those failures.  The time is now for Dixon to be a complete coach because the university paid a lot of money for him to be one.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Dixon signs extension through 2023

Great news for the program. I truly believe this is the best coach that Pitt could have. Great move by the administration.

How Jamie Dixon compares when getting to Elite 8

Jamie Dixon has been the head coach of Pitt for ten years.  He has coached the Panthers to one Elite 8 appearance in that time.  Here's how he compares to other coaches in those same ten years. Obviously some of these coaches can add one more to their column this year if their team is still alive. Those coaches have obviously not completed ten years until they lose.

Roy Williams  6 (currently in 10th year)
John Calipari  6
Jim Calhoun 4 (completed 9 years; inactive)
Rick Pitino 4 (currently in 10th year)
Billy Donovan 4 (currently in 10th year)
Tom Izzo 3 (currently in 10th year)
Thad Matta 3 (currently in 10th year)
Ben Howland 3
Brad Stevens 2 (currently in 5th year)
Sean Miller 2 (currently in 9th year)
Mike Kryzewski 2 (currently in 10th year)
Jay Wright 2
Rick Barnes 2
Scott Drew 2
Eddie Sutton 1 (completed 3 years; inactive)
Shaka Smart 1 (completed 4 years)
Lute Olson 1 (completed 4 years; inactive)
Frank Martin 1 (completed 6 years)
Ernie Kent 1 (completed 7 years)
Mark Gottfried 1 (completed 8 years)
Jeff Capel 1 (completed 8 years; currently not a head coach)
Bruce Pearl 1 (completed 8 years; currently inactive)
Jim Boeheim 1 (currently in 10th year)
Jim Larranaga 1 (currently in 10th year)
Tubby Smith 1 (currently in 10th year)
John Beilein 1 (currently in 10th year)
Paul Hewitt 1
Bob Huggins 1
John Thompson III 1
Bruce Weber 1
John Brady 1
Jamie Dixon 1
Bo Ryan 1
Phil Martelli 1
Mike Anderson 1
Buzz Williams  0  (currently in 6th year)
Mike Montgomery 0 (currently in 6th year)
Tom Crean 0  (currently in 10th year)
Mark Few 0 (currently in 10th year)
Lon Kruger 0 (completed 9 years)
Frank Haith (completed 9 years)
Matt Painter  0
Leonard Hamilton 0
Mike Brey  0
Kevin Stallings 0
Steve Alford  0

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Dixon does have strong interest in USC job

The same very close Jamie Dixon confidante that tells me every year that Dixon is going nowhere, texted me late last night with the sentence "this time he could go".

When I asked if it was it "the ACC thing? His dad? Money? All of the above?", he replied with "What did you leave out? Declining attendance, etc.".  I then asked if Pitt was considered a great job in college basketball and he said "Good/very good job...not great".  This is in line with what others in the college basketball world have told me.

I asked if Ben Howland or Sean Miller would be interested.  He replied "Howland would have to under the situation.  I hear Miller wants no part of it".  Later he said "I hear Miller isn't too excited about it".  I still think Miller and his family want to move back east, and there's always an outside chance, but I appear to be the only one that thinks that.

He then went on to say "you end up with a (Robert Morris head coach Andy) Toole or a (Bucknell head coach Dave" Paulsen type".  Then he said a "Herb Sendek type" or Seth Greenberg type".  Notice he said type, and not those actual coaches.  Meaning a young hotshot from a smaller program or a good, but not high profile, veteran.

Bottom line, Dixon leaving is a very real possibility this time, and the only real slam dunk choice to replace him may be Howland, though you never know when you will hit the jackpot with a young up and comer.  And let's not forget that even somebody this close to Dixon doesn't know everything in his his head. But the chance that it could happen is very real this time.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Panthers get an 8 seed

I was thinking they would get a 7 seed but I'm not surprised that they got an 8 seed because of their usual out of conference schedule which was once again embarrassing.

The Panthers will play in Salk Lake City and will play the 9 seed, the Wichita Shockers.  I think the chances of Pitt winning that one are 50/50, but even if they win, they aren't getting past the second round since they will have to play No.1 seed Gonzaga.

Friday, March 15, 2013

How Steven Adams shapes up against other 7'0" freshman centers

Since the 2005 class, there were 23 consensus top 50  prospects that were 7'0" centers.  Steven Adams had a better freshman season than 17 of them.  Three of those 17 went on to be All-Americans, and Jeff Withey may be the fourth.

Steven Adams, Pittsburgh:  7.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.0 bpg

Isaiah Austin, Baylor:  13.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg
Notes: Considered a top 10 NBA pick prior to this season, but is advised to stay in school by ESPN draft expert Chad Ford who doesn't think he will be a lottery pick now if he came out.

Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona:  6.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.6 bpg
Notes:  NBA draft website DraftExpress ranks him as the No.17 best prospect among freshman (Steven Adams is No.10).

Fab Melo, Syracuse:  2.3 ppg  1.9 rpg, 0.8 bpg
Notes:  In his sophomore season he averaged 7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, and 2.9 bpg.  Was named Big East Defensive Player of the Year and was taken with the 22nd pick of the first round in the NBA draft.

B.J. Mullens, Ohio State:  8.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.1 bpg
Notes: Left after his freshman season and was taken with the 24th pick in the first round of the NBA draft.

Tyler Zeller, North Carolina:  3.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 0.2  bpg
Notes:  Didn't become a top player until junior season when he 15.7 ppg and 7.2 rpg.  After a senior season of 16.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg, and 1.5 bpg, he was taken with the 17th pick in the NBA draft.  He was also the ACC Player of the Year and a consensus second team All-American after senior season.

Jeff Withey, Kansas:  1.3 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 0.4 bpg.
Notes:  Finally came into his own during his senior season with an All-American caliber season of 13.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, and 4.0 bpg.

Kenny Kadji, Miami:  4.4 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 0.7 bpg
Notes: Was a senior this season and had his best year with 13.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg, and 1.4 bpg.

Ty Walker, Wake Forest:  0.9 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 0.4 bpg.
Notes:  Had his best season this year, as a senior, going for 4.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, and 2.6 bpg.  Was recently suspended for the rest of the season.

Kenny Frease, Xavier:  5.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.3 bpg.
Notes:  Finished his career last season and currently plays in Germany. His junior season he averaged 11.7 ppg, 7.1 rbg, and 0.8 bpg.  As a senior he averaged 10.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, and 1.1 bpg.

Kosta Koufus, Ohio State:  14.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.8 bpg.
Notes:  Left after freshman season and was taken with the 23rd pick of the first round in the NBA draft.

DeAndre Jordan, Texas A&M:  7.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg.
Notes:  Left after first season and was taken in the second round of the NBA draft.

Cole Aldrich, Kansas:  2.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 0.9 bpg.
Notes:  Made huge leap sophomore season averaging 14.9 ppg, 11.1 rpg, and 2.7 bpg.  As a junior he averaged 11.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg, and 3.5 bpg.  Was consensus second team All-American after junior season, then left early for the NBA where he was the 11th overall pick in the draft.

Solomon Alabi, Florida State:  3.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.2 bpg (broke leg 10 games into season)
Notes:  Became second round draft pick after redshirt sophomore season that saw him average 11.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, and 2.3 bpg.

Greg Oden, Ohio State:  15.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 3.3 bpg
Notes: Was a consensus first team All-American after his freshman season then became the first pick of the NBA draft.

Spencer Hawes, Washington:  14.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.7 bpg
Notes:  Left after freshman season and became the 10th overall pick in the NBA draft.

Robin Lopez, Stanford:  7.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg.
Notes:  After a similar sophomore season he left for the NBA and became the 15th pick overall in the NBA draft.

Brian Zoubek, Duke:  3.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 0.3 bpg
Notes:  Best season was his senior year when he averaged 5.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg, and 0.8 bpg.

Jason Bennett, Kansas State:  1.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.9 bpg.
Notes: Left for a junior college after his freshman season, then played the last two seasons at Detroit Mercy where he did little.

Tom Herzog, Michigan State:  redshirted
Notes:  After redshirt sophomore year he transferred to Central Florida where he continued to not do much.

Jon Kreft, Florida State: was arrested for drugs and missed first two seasons of college career
Notes:  Averaged 3.2 ppg and 2.8 ppg in the two seasons he played.

Luke Zeller, Notre Dame:  3.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 0.3 bpg.
Notes: His senior season was his best with 4.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, and 0.2 bpg.

Eric Boateng, Duke:  0.7 ppg, 0.6 rpg, 0.0 bpg.
Notes:  Transferred after freshman season to Arizona State and played last three years there. Senior season was only year he did anything with 8.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg, and 0.8 bpg.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pitt's last Big East tournament ends with a thud

Final Score:  Syracuse  62  Pittsburgh  59

1.  I can't say I'm surprised that Pitt lost and in fact I angered some when I said that I would be surprised if they won more than one game in each of the two tournaments, but it's still very frustrating that many of the team's problems continue to raise their ugly head.

2.  Once again the team seemed lost for much of the game and consequently fell behind by 13 points in the first half.  Even more troubling is that it's the same three veterans- Tray Woodall, Lamar Patterson, and Talib Zanna- who were the most egregious offenders.  Their numbers eventually looked decent, but they got most of their numbers after their lackadaisical play put them in a big hole.

3. Patterson somehow ended up with 14 points and 11 rebounds despite disappearing for long stretches. Woodall ended up with 12 points, including 3-8 from three.  Zanna had 10 points and 5 rebounds.

4.  The two freshman, Steven Adams and James Robinson, played poorly, especially Adams who ended up with 6 points, 7 rebounds, and a block, but also had 3 turnovers and went 2-7 from the field.  Robinson had 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 steals, but also had a career high 4 turnovers, including the big one that was the nail in the coffin.

5.  The bench had only 7 points with 5 coming from Durand Johnson, but he was erratic shooting 2-6 from the field.  The bench shot 3-13 from the field and had just 7 of Pitt's 33 rebounds.

6.  Pitt out rebounded Syracuse  33-26.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

PA Top 25 for 2014 (March '13)

Usually I wait until the camp and combine circuit to wind down in June before I make the first rankings, but I decided this year to get a jump on things so the readers can keep an eye on players leading into the camps and combines.  This list will obviously change in a few months since prospects will move up or down the list depending on how well they do over the next few months.  Some positions, like quarterback, wide receivers, linemen, and defensive backs in particular tend to impress in the spring.

1.  Shai McKenzie, Washington HS (Washington) RB-  The top end of the PA class is loaded but nobody has more offers than McKenzie. Runs tough at a rock solid 5'11" and 210 pounds and he's been timed at a blazing 10.83 100m at a track meet.  Pittsburgh is a major player, and maybe even the current leader, but some of his biggest offers include Penn State, West Virginia, Michigan, Michigan State, Florida State, Georgia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

2.  Dravon Henry, Aliquippa HS (Aliquippa) S-  Excellent, rangy athlete who could be an elite running back or safety if he wanted to, but he wants to play safety.  Not big for the position at 5'11" and 180 pounds, but he's a fabulous talent. Aliquippa is a pipeline to Pitt and once again the Panthers seem to be the current favorite, but other offers have come from Penn State, West Virginia, Ohio State, Michigan, Washington, Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Rutgers.

3.  Montae Nicholson, Gateway HS (Monroeville) S- Big time athlete with great length on a muscular 6'2" 200 pound frame. Showed in combines last year that he was the real deal. Can be a star wide receiver at the college level, but may be getting more looks at safety where he also can be outstanding. Pittsburgh and Ohio State may be the leaders, and both have offered, as have Penn State, West Virginia, Michigan, Nebraska, Missouri, Florida State, and Stanford.

4.  Alex Bookser, Mt. Lebanon HS (Mt. Lebanon) OT/DT-  Great 6'6" 295 pound size, but even better than that he can really move well.  So much so that not only could he be a big time left tackle, but he could also be a dominating defensive tackle.  Recruiting should continue to explode but some early offers include Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Ohio State, Florida State, Nebraska, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Northwestern, and Rutgers.

5.  K.J. Williams, Liberty HS (Bethlehem) WR-  Has everything it takes to be a great receiver with 6'2" 190 pound size, great hands, and excellent speed and athleticism.  Makes circus catches look routine.  Early offers from Pittsburgh, Michigan, Rutgers, and South Carolina but many more are on the way.

6.  DeAndre Scott, Imhotep Charter School (Philadelphia) CB-  Called the Brian Dawkins of Philadelphia high school football because of his playmaking and vicious hitting. Only 5'9" and 180 pounds, but plays bigger and has excellent speed and quickness. Early offers include Pittsburgh, Penn State, West Virginia, Miami, Nebraska, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Rutgers, and Texas.

7.  Mike Grimm, Bethel Park HS (Bethel Park) OT-  Giant 6'6" 310 pound frame and he looks like a house.  Better feet than given credit for, but make no mistake about it, brute force is his game and he pushes defenders all over the field. Pittsburgh is the favorite, and West Virginia, Virginia, Rutgers, and Arizona also offered.

8.  Anthony Davis, Gateway HS (Monroeville) CB/S-  Great 6'1" 180 pound size for a lockdown corner and he combines that with very good speed and quickness.  If he doesn't work out at corner, he could be a great safety. Early offers include Penn State, West Virginia, Nebraska, Missouri, Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, and Cincinnati.

9.  Chase Winovich, Thomas Jefferson HS (Jefferson Hills) LB-  Moved from safety to linebacker last season and a star was born. Great length at 6'4", but needs to add weight to his 210 pound frame. Amazing range and can really fly. Should add weight now that he knows that linebacker is his future, and once that weight and strength is added, he could be a major force. Pittsburgh is the favorite and other offers include Florida State, West Virginia, Boston College, and Syracuse

10.  Troy Apke, Mt. Lebanon HS (Mt. Lebanon) WR-  Needs to gain weight but at 6'2" and 175 pounds he has great length.  Runs in the 4.4s and plays all out on every play by jumping, leaping, and diving.  Also an excellent return man.  His father, Steve, was a star linebacker for Pittsburgh so they may be the favorite.  Other offers have come from Penn State, Georgia Tech, Minnesota, and Kentucky.

11.  Chandler Kincade, Blackhawk HS (BEaver Falls) QB- Needs to fill out his 220 pound frame, but has great 6'5" height.  Doesn't have a cannon for an arm but it's stronger than average and should only get stronger once he fills out.  Good leader.  Has battled injuries, but he's tough. Mobile in the pocket. Chose PITTSBURGH long ago, and Rutgers and Temple also offered.

12.  Tyler Burke, Coatesville HS (Coatesville) DE/LB/TE-  Small school star who dominates thanks to his great 6'4" 240 pound size, quickness, toughness, and instincts.  Projects at all three positions, but most schools are leaning towards defensive end, even though he plays linebacker and tight end at Coatesville.    Offers so far from Pittsburgh (as DE), Wisconsin, Maryland, North Carolina State, Rutgers, and Temple.

13.  Noah Beh, Scranton Prep (Scranton) DE/OT-  Great 6'6" 245 pound size and moves very well for his lanky frame.  Most schools, like Pittsburgh, are looking at him for defensive end, but a few, like Penn State, have offered him at offensive tackle.  Other offers have come from Boston College, Maryland, UConn, and Temple.  Penn State or Boston College may be the teams to beat.

14.  Robert Martin, Harrisburg HS (Harrisburg) RB-  A real game breaker with very good speed and topnotch quickness.  Solidly built 5'11" and 195 pounds, and he has the frame to add more muscle. Has the ability to move up the rankings. Can also move to safety if need be. West Virginia, Rutgers, and Temple are his big offers so far.

15.  Brenon Thrift, Gateway HS (Monroeville) DE/LB-  The former Steel Valley HS transfer is already built like an NFL player at 6'3" and 245 pounds.  Wants to play middle linebacker but may outgrow that position.  Played defensive end last year at Gateway and showed good pass rushing skills.  Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Michigan have offered.

16.  Ricky Rogers, Gateway HS (Monroeville) WR-  Another kid who transferred to Gateway, this time from Keystone Oaks HS. Even though he plays for Gateway, he is home schooled.  Good size at 6'2" and 195. Strong build, great hands, good athleticism and speed.  He is a world class dancer, believe it or not, and wants to major in dance in college.  That college will be WEST VIRGINIA where he committed back in December.  Pittsburgh and Rutgers also offered, but there would have been more if he didn't commit so early.

17.  Daquan Worley, Coatesville HS (Coatesville) RB/CB-  The second of Coatesville's excellent duo, but he's a very good prospect in his own right.  Only 5'10" and 175 pounds so he isn't the ideal size for running back, but he runs strong between the tackles and he has game breaking speed.  His best two offers so far are Rutgers and Georgia Tech but that list will grow.

18.  Thadd Smith, Cardinal O'Hara HS (Springfield) WR-  Versatile player who lines up at running back, wide receiver, and defensive back, but because of his excellent speed, quickness, and 5'9" 165 pound size, slot receiver and return man seems to be the best fit for him.  Offers have come from Rutgers, Boston College, and Temple.

19.  Elijah Zeise, North Allegheny HS (Wexford) WR/S-  Started as a sophomore on probably the best program in the state so that says something right there.  Good 6'2" 185 pound size to go with good quickness and speed.  Excellent student. May be better at safety, but some are looking at him at receiver.  Son of Pitt beat writer paul Zeise so the Panthers may be the favorite, but Arizona and Temple have also offered.

20.  Joe Cosentino, Central Catholic (Pittsburgh) QB- On paper, he looks like a star.  Has great 6'4" 220 pound size, he is fast with good athleticism, and has a very strong arm.  The only problem is, he hasn't done much at all yet in high school so this is the highest I could go with him at this stage. If he lives up to his potential this year he will catapult into the top ten. Also a very good punter. Florida State and South Florida have offered.

21.  Zaire Franklin, LaSalle College HS (Philadelphia) LB- A stocky, muscular 6'1" and 215 pounder who has good range and hits like a ton of bricks.  Plays well against the run or the pass.  Pittsburgh and Temple are his best offers so far.

22.  Harry Randall, Woodland Hills HS (Pittsburgh) S- Talented, quick athlete with great range. Not big for safety at 5'11" and 185 pounds, but he's tough. Had a major knee injury last season but shouldn't be a long term problem. Grades are a major problem and that's why he has no major offers yet.

23.  Justice Rawlins, Monessen HS (Monessen) LB- A solidly built 6'1" and 225 pounds, and he combines that with good straight line speed.  Lost his sophomore year after blowing out his knee and only started coming full force at the end of last year.  For that reason he may have a huge senior year that could result in even more offers.  Right now the offer list is headed by Pittsburgh and Rutgers.  His brother, Chavas, is an incoming freshman quarterback at West Virginia this season so they could be the favorite if they offered.

24.  Brock Boxen, Beaver Falls HS (Beaver Falls) DT-  Tough scrapper at 6'2" and 265 pounds.  Has the frame to add more weight and could be a real force inside thanks to his toughness and quicks.  So far Pittsburgh is his only offer.

25.  Andrew Ford, Cedar Cliff HS (Camp Hill) QB- Crafty 6'3" 190 pound lefty who runs a 4.65 and throws a nice ball.  Should get better offers over the next few months when schools can see him throw up close.  Temple is his biggest offer so far.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Early look at next year's Pitt basketball team

It remains to be seen how this season will end, but no matter what happens the rest of the way, at least this season was a major improvement over the 2011-12 season.  And there's plenty of reasons to think that next season will be even better, even without major contributors Tray Woodall and Dante Taylor.


PG- James Robinson, So.-  The freshman was every bit as good as I thought he would be in his first season and he will only get better.  His shooting is not great, and will probably never be great, but it should improve next season.  And with Woodall no longer in the backcourt, I suspect that Robinson will look for his shot a little more.  But scoring will never be his forte. At 6'3" and 200 pounds, he uses his strong body, good quickness, and natural instincts to be an excellent defender.  On offense, he is smart already and with more experience he should be even a better quarterback as a sophomore. Bottom line, scoring wasn't always the forte of Mark Jackson when he was at St. John's either. I'm not saying that Robinson will be as good as one of the best point guards in history, but anybody who has his defensive and quarterback skills at the degree he has already, should be a star sooner rather than later. Expect him to be nationally recognized next season as one of the best point guards in the country.

SG- Cameron Wright, Jr.- Looked totally lost many times as a redshirt freshman, but this season he made major strides.  In fact, he's already reached the level that many suspected he wouldn't reach until he was a senior.  I don't seem him ever being a big time player, and he's certainly not the perimeter player that the program has desperately needed year after year, but he's a long 6'4", plays very good defense, has excellent athleticism, and is improving as a scorer. He's played slightly less that Trey Zeigler this season, but Zeigler is terrible with his outside shot and from the free throw line.  With Robinson not a major offensive threat, pairing him with Robinson for long periods of time could be the kiss of death. For that reason, Wright may be the best of a less than scintillating lot.

C-  Steven Adams, So.- I have no doubts at all that Adams would be a first round pick if he decides to leave for the NBA draft after this season, but I also doubt that he is going to leave.  And I think by the way the Panthers are recruiting, they clearly expect him to be back, too.  That's great news for the program because I think the 7'0" New Zealand native is going to make huge strides next season.  He does have some weaknesses that he clearly needs to work on.  I doubt that his 42% free throw shooting will improve enough to be a strength, but the rest of his weaknesses should strengthen a lot in his second season.  A man of his size simply needs to rebound better than 6.2 rpg, but I think that is mostly mental for Adams. He is a very strong young man who usually doesn't play strong. He continually gets pushed around by smaller players and gets stripped way too often.  But when Adams decides to get aggressive, he flashes the greatness he has inside.  But he is not aggressive very often, and I believe that mainly has to do with being new not only to American basketball, but also America itself.  More time getting accumulated to the country, and high level basketball, should do wonders for his game.  Like Robinson, I expect him to become a player who will get a lot of buzz in his sophomore year.

PF-  Talib Zanna, Sr.- Along with Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore, he is the team leader in fan disappointment.  He tantalizes with NBA talent at times, but then disappears at other times.  Zanna has had rebounding games of 19, 12, 10, and 10 this season, and also had 9 rebounds three more times.  Yet he still, at 6'9" and 230 pounds, is averaging only 6.1 rbg.  That means he disappears a lot, too, and as a senior that's going to have to stop. Especially since Taylor will not be there to give him experienced support down low.  At the beginning of this season it looked like Zanna has broken through to another level.  It didn't happen, and now I have serious doubts that it will happen next year either, but as long as he's more consistent as a senior he will be a major help.

SF-  Lamar Patterson, Sr.- The second of the third disappointments, and I say that relatively since all three are obviously solid players.  It's just that Patterson is another player in the program that is not consistent with his aggressiveness and that prevents him from reaching a higher level.  Not an above the rim athlete, but he's a muscular 6'5" and 220 pounds, he can sometimes light it up from the outside, and he is an excellent passer.  Like Zanna, it's becoming apparent that he probably won't be a star, but if he simply plays with consistent aggressiveness, which for him usually displays itself by passing up on open shots, he could be an even better all around role player.


F- J.J. Moore, Sr.-  Now a senior, Moore is probably the most underachieving player on the team, but a lot of that is because he is also one of the most naturally talented players on the roster.  An extremely athletic 6'6' and 220 pounds, Moore can flat out shoot at times, but needs to be more consistent as evidenced by his 34% three point shooting this season.  He is also shooting an excellent 81.5% from the line. His numbers have improved every season, but not by a lot, and he's down to his last year to reach the lofty level that was once expected of him.

G- Trey Zeigler, Sr.- Once a star at Central Michigan, but upon his arrival at Pitt, he quickly realized that high level basketball is a different story. He has no outside shot at all, he's a terrible free throw shooter, and he's only average defensively and as a ball handler.  That's a lot of weaknesses.  But he sometimes drives very well and he can score when he is slashing. If he's starting, the Panthers may be in trouble next season, but if he's used in the right way, he could at least not be a detriment to the team. In the last seven games of this season, he never scored more than 2 points so that's not a good sign.

F- Durand Johnson, So.- A 6'6" sharpshooter whose sometimes excellent three point shooting is really all he can contribute.  He is highly athletic so if he adds slashing to his game, his offensive game could be much better.  But he must improve the rest of his game or he will have a career of being just a designated shooter.

G-  Chris Jones, Fr.-  Was redshirted this season, but his potential is intriguing.  He can legitimately play the two at 6'6" which already is a major plus. He has great length and good athleticism,  and he has potential with his shooting, defense, and ball handling even though he has yet to play a game.  Obviously he's a real wildcard for this season and beyond.

F-  Mike Young, Fr.- An incoming 6'8" freshman who will see time.  He can bang in the paint, but he has expanded his game recently to be a legitimate three point threat, which obviously is a major plus for a power forward.  I don't expect him to make a major impact, but he will likely show flashes throughout the season as he learns what it takes to play big time basketball.

G-  Josh Newkirk, Fr.-  A 6'2" combo guard who could see see more time at the two later in his career because of Robinson, but may have to backup Robinson some at the point as a freshman.  That's obviously not ideal to have such youth at the point in the ACC.  But he's a crazy athlete who can dunk on anybody, and has beep beep speed,  while also improving his shot a lot over the past year.  Will see time and should help a little.  

Summary:  With four starters returning, one would have to be excited about next year.  Woodall and Taylor will be losses, but neither are indispensable.  There are weaknesses.  Transfers have done a number on the program and there are question marks at shooting guard and backup point guard.  Two more players are possibly being added in this class, but it's unlikely that either will be a player who could make a huge difference next season.  

There are two things that have to happen for Pitt to be a power next season.  One, Zanna, Patterson, and Moore have to come up big in their senior season and stop being inconsistent.  I doubt that any will be a breakout star next season but by showing senior leadership in effort and consistency, the team will be much better.

The second major thing that has to happen is that Adams and Robinson have to make major strides as  sophomores.  The good news is that it would be more surprising if they didn't make that jump.  But neither will probably score a lot next season.  And with nobody else likely to be a big scorer, the Panthers are going to have to win next year like they do this year, with rebounding and defense.  If Adams and Robinson make that jump, then the defense and rebounding will be even better next year because both have great potential on defense and Adams could be a 10 rpg player if he realizes that he has that ability.  And if you have a strong center and point guard, you are going to win a lot of games.  What may prevent the team from being one of the best in the nation, however, could once again be the lack of a consistently explosive scorer.  Past Panther teams could overcome that to a certain extent because they were so consistent in defense and rebounding, and had an efficient offense. This bunch, however, has not yet shown that they can play at that same level.  Consistent seniors and Adams and Robinson turning into stars is the best, possible scenario for the Panthers next season.