For some strange reason there are an alarming number of Pitt fans who are pessimistic when it comes to the Pitt basketball program. I don't know if this is because these people are irritated with the Pitt football program and they're taking out on the basketball program, or if it's because Pittsburgh isn't a basketball city, but whatever the reason, these fans are off base. In fact, a case can be made that things are about to get even better for Jamie Dixon.
Let's look first at Pitt's recent past. There has been some upheaval in the last two seasons because the results have not been as good on the court, and a significant number of players left early. While this has made some fans apoplectic, the truth is, this is not uncommon at all.
Jim Calhoun had many down years after he turned UConn into a power. In the 2009-10 season, UConn went 18-16. That was between a 31-5 Final Four season and a 32-9 National Championship season. He's had other seasons with records of 15-13, 18-15, and 17-14. Jim Boeheim has been in four NITs in the last seventeen years. A year after going to the Final Four, Rick Pitino led Louisville to the NIT, and just four years ago he was 20-13. Also four seasons ago, Roy Williams led North Carolina to the NIT a year after leading the Tar Heels to the National Championship. Even Mike Krzyzewski led Duke to an 8-8 ACC record in the 2006-07 season.
Nobody questioned the excellence of these coaches at the time because people knew there was extenuating circumstances. When these great coaches had the players they would win a lot. In the few instances when the players weren't there even their greatness could only take the team so far. Injuries, graduations, transfers, and even bad luck all combine to form a perfect storm of mediocrity. It even happens to Hall of Fame coaches.
The only subpar year that Dixon had was the 2011-2012 season in which Pitt won the CBI Championship and went 22-17. This was just one year after winning the Big East with a 15-3 record, and going 28-6 to finish No. 4 in the country. That was just three years ago! Last year, despite starting two true freshmen and with a leading scorer who averaged just 11.5 ppg and shot 37% from the field, Dixon still led the Panthers to a fourth place finish in the Big East, 24 wins, and a No. 20 ranking.
The program has been a success for over a decade and now there isn't a high school player in the country that doesn't see Pitt basketball as a high level program. Do they see them as Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, or Syracuse? No. Those programs have been greater longer and they just happen to be led by four of the small handful of coaches who've been more successful than Dixon. Until Pitt wins big in the postseason they will not beat those schools out for an elite player. But that doesn't mean that there still aren't excellent players out there to be had. And being in the ACC will help Pitt immensely. Even though the Big East was always a marquee conference, there was competition for the best conference with the ACC. Now the ACC is the conference to be in if you want to be playing with the best.
Dixon is clearly adapting to the ACC, both in style and quality of talent. Incoming and future forwards like Mike Young, Sheldon Jeter, and Ryan Luther are signs of the adapting. All three are versatile power forwards who can run, pass, and shoot. Gone are the plodding bruisers that Pitt terrorized teams with in the Big East. And guards like Josh Newkirk and Detrick Mostella are fast and explosive, another facet that the Panthers usually lacked in their Big East days. Mostella being eligible would be a real coup for the Panthers as he can not only fly but he can also shoot the lights out. Mostella, who has had grade issues and has not been ruled eligible, joins highly talented center Joseph Uchebo, who will play little or not at all this season because of a leg injury, as players who can make Pitt excellent as soon as next year. Both are question marks, but both also have NBA talent. They are also both examples of Dixon using his savvy to find big time talent that fell through the cracks. Every program takes gambles on players and these two players are the best gambles you can take.
But Pitt is not so desperate that they have to rely just on those two for future success. The recruiting by the staff has never been more aggressive. The rehiring of former ace recruiter and top assistant Barry Rohrssen is a huge bonus. Not only does this now allow the staff to have an extra recruiter on the road (it was a mistake not to have this before), but Rohrssen is the strong right hand man that Dixon has lacked since Tom Herrion left. And because of Rohrssen, and Dixon's new aggressive approach, I can see the Panthers' recruiting take off.
This season there has been some good local additions in Jeter and Luther, and 7'0" center Satchel Pierce may be added, too. And if not Pierce, Dixon is currently looking at other off the map center prospects that are intriguing. But it takes a few years to be involved with the truly elite prospects. And that's what the Panthers have done.
Let's start with Maverick Rowan, another local, who could end up being a top 50 player. He's the real deal, a player that at 6'6" is a highly skilled shooting guard, something Pitt has never had in the past. He has already verbally committed to the Panthers, and even though he's currently listed as a 2016 prospect, 2015 is not out of the realm of possibility. Does a potential backcourt of James Robinson, Newkirk, Mostella, and Rowan sound like a program that's reeling? No, that's a program that's thriving like never before. Throw in highly athletic forwards like Jeter, Luther, and Young, and you can see how Pitt has the potential to be more athletic and explosive than ever.
Then there are the national elite prospects that the Panthers are recruiting well in advance, something they failed to do in the past. Previously Dixon did not aim high, and I even had somebody on the staff tell me that they target people they "think we have a chance with." I found this alarming and too conservative. Dixon rarely went for the best recruits because he didn't think he could land them, or didn't want to do what it took to land them (kiss the butts of handlers and power hungry relatives). Dixon would methodically follow under the radar types for many months before finally making his move.
But no more. No doubt that the combination of Rohrssen rejoining the staff, Dixon's new contract bringing him stability, the desire to right his recent wrongs, and the move to the ACC has energized Dixon like never before. He and his staff have already targeted, and begun to recruit heavily, some of the best prospects in the country in the 2015 and 2016 classes.
At "Morning Madness" this season, Pitt put on a show like they've never done before, and had superstar prospects there to see it. Cheick Diallo, a 6'9" forward/center from Long Island is a top 10 prospect that is as elite as they come in the 2015 class. He was there. So was his 6'7" teammate Kassoum Yakwe, a top 25 prospect in the 2016 class. The last of the big time prospects was 6'8" 275 pound Fort Wayne, IN center Caleb Swanigan, a top 20 2016 prospect. The chances of the Panthers getting any of three are not great simply because of the competition, but the fact that they got them on the campus so far in advance is something the program didn't, and maybe couldn't, get done before. To get these types of talents it takes years of courting and Pitt has begun to do that.
It doesn't stop with those three, though. If Mostella does not make into the program, Dixon is prepared with some 2015 possibilities. Top 20 New Jersey point guard Isaiah Briscoe has been offered, as has 6'5" top 20 shooting guard Malachi Richardson, also from New Jersey, and fast rising 6'4" Delaware guard Donte Divincenzo.
The Panthers staff may end up with none of these players, but there chances are much greater now than they ever were because more than ever the program is on track to do what it takes to land more of the better players. They only need one special player to move to a higher level. The closest Dixon ever came to the Final Four was the only time he had two special players, in DeJuan Blair and Sam Young. Rowan may be that player. Newkirk may be that player. Mostella may be that player. Maybe will be Yakwe or Swanigan. Or maybe even Uchebo. This is not the type of talent that a struggling program is involved with.
Bottom line, don't sleep on Dixon and this program. They had a two year hiccup, and if that's the worst it gets then that's pretty special. There's many reasons why the program may be on the verge of finally reaching an even better level. And if they don't, the program is still better than 95% of the programs in the country and that's pretty special in itself.