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.