1. Dixon is hamstrung in recruiting. There are few top prospects locally and the move from the Big East has hurt recruiting in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. Dixon knew that leaving the Big East would not only hurt, but kill his brand, because he would now have to recruit in different areas where they didn't know as much about Pitt basketball. That's why he was so hesitant to leave the Big East until it was no longer possible to stay.
He also won't take suspect kids, even if the administration would allow him, as evidenced by their overreaction to the Durand Johnson situation. Without a great local recruiting area, no connection to top prospects in major basketball cities in the northeast, and the fact that he and the administration won't cheat, there's only so much he can do. Normally it would sound like sour grapes to claim that mostly everybody else is cheating, but let's be honest, it's become more and more apparent that they are.
2. Even saying that, Dixon and his assistant coaches have to do a better job of identifying talent. Assistant coaches at a major program like Pitt identify and offer players on their own. It's then up to Dixon to choose who he wants, and then close on those players.
All assistants miss. It's an inexact science, after all. Brandin Knight is considered the top recruiter on the staff but his track record isn't as great as the top recruiters on other similar staffs. In other words, the Panthers really have no ace recruiter, even if Knight is the best of the bunch. Bill Barton added Jamel Artis, and he deserves credit for that, but that's all he's added. He's practically a ghost on the recruiting circuit. New assistant Smoke Williamson is in his first year so it's impossible to criticize his recruitment yet, but his hiring was curious to say the least. Apparently Dixon thought he could find another recruiting area for Pitt, and he chose Michigan. But like I said when he was hired, the top kids in Michigan are not going to be going to Pitt. They want to play for Michigan, Michigan State, or somewhere else in the Big 10. Pittsburgh is not going have strong appeal for kids in Michigan, and it's a little troubling that Dixon thought it would. Lastly, many praise Barry Rohrssen but it was he who brought in the likes of Tyrone Haughton and Shaq Doorson so he is not without blame either.
3. As I've established, Dixon does not get elite talent on a regular basis. So how does he win so many games? He does it by taking good developmental prospects and turning them into really good players. He deserves a lot of credit for that because few coaches coach up good players enough to turn them into very good or excellent teams, but Dixon usually does it. But he needs time to develop them. Only a few players in his dozen years were really good before their junior years. It's not until they become upperclassmen that they form a cohesive unit of good players that work as one to make an excellent team. Dixon finished No. 4 in the nation, and won the Big East in 2011, which that year was considered the toughest single conference ever, with a starting five of Ashton Gibbs, Gilbert Brown, Brad Wanamaker, Nasir Robinson, and Gary McGhee. Let that sink in for a second. There wasn't one star on that team, no NBA players, and not even a real point guard. But they were three seniors and two juniors that played together a lot and developed into the perfect Jamie Dixon "we all work as one" team.
4. The problem with the above example is that there is not a lot of room for error. A couple of bad evaluations and your weakest link is now too weak. And Dixon, and his staff, then started missing. In the 2010 class, Cameron Wright turned into a solid contributor but Isaiah Epps and JJ Moore transferred. In 2011 Khem Birch, Malcolm Gilbert, and John Johnson all transferred. The other signee, Durand Johnson, has not done much yet in his career and he was suspended this season.
With that many misses, the 2012 class was crucial. Dixon needed a big time class to right the ship and he thought he had it with top 10 prospect Steven Adams and top 50 prospect James Robinson. Nothing should make a program better in a hurry than an elite center and an elite point guard. Instead, Adams left after his freshman season, well before he became a major factor, and Robinson has never lived up to his lofty high school reputation. The other player in this class, Chris Jones, was actually a minor success considering late signees by Dixon rarely pan out. The fact that he is even a contributor is good.
In 2013, the Panthers hit with Mike Young and Jamel Artis, the two best players on the team currently. A third signee, Josh Newkirk, regressed this season, but it's still too early to say if he is a bust. But the biggest mistake here was not finding a replacement for Adams. And, yes, Dixon assumed Adams was leaving. He said it himself after Adams left. I even knew it and if I knew it then Dixon knew it. Adams was one of 17 kids in a poor family and he only came to the US to play in the NBA and make money. There was no reasonable explanation why Dixon didn't have a plan of succession. Instead he waits until Adams leaves and signs Joseph Uchebo, a once promising center that was now playing on one leg. Needless to say, he has not helped the team.
Not only didn't Dixon replace Adams in 2013, but in 2014 he compounded the problem. First, Rohrssen brought in a developmental lug named Shaq Doorson. He could barely catch a basketball. When Rohrssen left, so (thankfully) did Doorson. This year at Rutgers, which is one of the worst major college programs in the country, Doorson averaged 1.6 ppg and shot 23% from the FT line. Dixon replaced him with another center that Rohrssen recruited, Tyrone Haughton, who did not see the floor this year- at all. The other three signees in the class were former local, and Vanderbilt transfer, Shelton Jeter, and two other locals in Ryan Luther and Cam Johnson. All three can be good role players at least, and maybe even a little more, but four developmental players after previous bad recruiting classes has the roster reeling, is not a good thing. Dixon desperately needed a player or two that could make an immediately impact. And he failed at that.
The 2015 class is more of the same. The Panthers need a difference making point guard and center very badly. Giant Rozelle Nix should at least be better than Uchebo, Doorson, and Haughton, but he's a lesser recruited junior college player who doesn't appear to be a high impact player. He has the chance to be a good player, and if he does then the staff deserves credit for identifying a sleeper center, but the lack of finding a top 100 high school center yet again is a troubling development. At point guard, Damon Wilson should be good down the road, but I don't see him making a big impact until he's a sophomore. In other words, once again Dixon has failed to land a player that can make a big impact right away.
With Uchebo and Haughton probably moving on, Dixon has two more chances to find that player. Check Diallo? Outside of the US? Junior college? Fifth year transfer? All are possibilities but Dixon's track record makes it doubtful.
5. Now you can see how Dixon got to where he's at. Because he won't be able to consistently bring in elite players, he needs upperclassmen who have spent a lot of time turning themselves into a cohesive unit. Instead, the Panthers had a team in which nearly half the roster was not ready, or capable, of contributing. D. Johnson was suspended for the year, Uchebo and C. Johnson were injured, Luther isn't ready, and Haughton and Randall will never be ready. That's six players right off the bat that Dixon can't use, which then leaves him with only seven players. Of that seven, five are sophomores. As I've already established Dixon needs upperclassmen to be successful, and through bad luck and bad recruiting, he just didn't have it this year.
How to get back on track:
The first thing is to get older. Luckily life will take care of that. Of the seven players that were actually in the rotation, only Cam Wright is moving on. Not only are those six coming back but so is Durand Johnson, who should immediately help with the outside shooting next year, as will Cam Johnson who could use the extra year to get stronger. Luther will also get stronger and will presumably be more of a factor. Add in Nix and Wilson, plus two more signees to be determined and the Panthers could have as many as seven new players to help the depth. And even more helpful is that upperclassmen will now include not only Robinson again, but now also Artis, Young, Jeter, Newkirk, Nix, and Jones. That's six juniors and we know juniors under Dixon usually get much better.
Then there's the recruiting. This is more iffy. Something has to change, and that begins with a bigger budget to get an ace recruiter, as well as a little more leniency with the administration. Every time I say this I get criticized, so let me specifically say that I don't want criminals or morons at Pitt. I'm talking about an occasional pass for a borderline student who just happens to be an elite basketball player. How the administration handled the Durand Johnson suspension is a good example of an administration that needs to lighten up a little. I know they fear that they will slip into the Paul Evans and Ralph Willard eras again, but there is a common ground in between that and what they've had the last 15 years. The new chancellor has seen the light in the football program, and he's hoping the same will happen with the basketball program. Dixon is a great ambassador for the university and he needs a little more help instead of suspending one of his players an entire year for a minor offense.
Bottom line, as long as the staff hits more than misses, like in the past instead of more recently, then the Panthers don't have to load up on elite recruits. One elite recruit to go with the usual good team players could get Pitt to the Sweet 16, and maybe beyond. It's no secret that their best team had the two best players of the Dixon era on the same team at the same time. But other than Levance Fields, DeJuan Blair and Sam Young didn't have the supporting cast that other past great Pitt teams had. This is why theoretically 2016 could be special. If Artis and Young continue to develop, and Mustapha Heron comes and becomes a star immediately, the Panthers will have three excellent players to go with four other seniors. That's the type of team that Dixon has always needed but he always failed short. If he falls short this team then it will probably be time to definitively say that it's not going to happen for him. At least not in a big way. But a great guy who wins a lot may be the best Pitt can do, and there are a lot of fans out there who would love nothing more than to have their program have that problem.