Like many of the past six seasons, the Pitt Panthers didn’t live up to expectations last season. And for the second time in four seasons, they failed to make it to the NCAA Tournament. This season the Panthers will see the bulk of their team back, starting with Junior forwards Jamel Artis and Michael Young. Artis (6’7’’) and Young (6’9’’) led the panthers last year in scoring with 13.6 and 13.4 points/game respectively. Both of these young players have become the driving force in this Pitt offense through their first 2 seasons with the team. Young was Pitt’s top recruit coming into the 2013-2014 season and things didn’t start off the way he or the Panthers would have liked them too. Although he appeared in all 36 games the panthers played, he only averaged 6.0 points/game, 4.1 rebounds/game, and 0.9 assists/game in just under 22 minutes a game. Now that he has developed into the player that everyone hoped, it’s time to get the rest of the team to that same level.
Much of what Pitt does this season will fall on the leadership of senior point guard James Robinson. Through three seasons with the Panthers, Robinson has appeared in 103 games, hasn’t scored above 9 points/game in any season, and has a career 37.9% shooting percentage. He may not be the most athletic player or the best shooter, but he does have experience and leadership that can carry this team farther than they have gone in past years. But enough of last year. This year is going to be different.
On Friday, Pitt opened up the season with an exhibition game against Gannon University, a game they won 80-50. Considering Gannon is a Division II program in the PSAC, much of this game shouldn’t have an impact on the season. But at the end of this week, Pitt will play their season opener as part of the Armed Forces Classic against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in Okinawa, Japan. This will be one of the few tough tests that Pitt will have during the first month and a half of the season, as they will only face two ranked teams in Gonzaga (#9) and Purdue (#23) in non-conference play.
But once January rolls around, the wins will mean more, and the competition will be much tougher. In the AP preseason ranks, the ACC has three teams ranked in the top six in the nation, North Carolina (#1), Duke (#5) and Virginia (#6). Not to mention the other conference games against teams such as Syracuse (twice), Louisville (twice), and Notre Dame, which is in South Bend on January 9th.
The panthers will have to try to make up for the loss of two key players to their team last year, Josh Newkirk and Cameron Wright. Wright is being lost due to graduation and Newkirk is part of a group that has transferred from Pitt, along with Durand Johnson, who didn’t play at all last season due to a suspension.
Much will be expected of the Panthers newest members, including a few transfers. Two of them (Rafael Maia and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa) are each 6’9’’ forwards who are graduate transfers and the other (Rozelle Nix) is a Junior College transfer and plays center. Another transfer who has stirred up a lot of talk has been guard Sterling Smith who is here from Coppin State. Smith is going into his senior season and is looking to build on a rather successful colligate career. Over the past three seasons, he has shot above 42% in every season as well as averaging 10 points/game over those three years. He will look to play a role in the front court with James Robinson, Chris Jones and highly recruited freshman point guard Damon Wilson.
Wilson was the 81st ranked player in his high school class last year according to the ESPN 100 rankings. Although he suffered a hamstring injury against Gannon on Friday, he should be able to overcome the minor injury and help make an impact. At 6’5’’ and 200lbs, Wilson is a true point guard who will be eased into the experienced front court Pitt posses, but may be asked to be a leader down the stretch if Pitt wants to make a deep run into the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
With approximately 79% of their scoring back from last season and the recruits that Jamie Dixon has brought in, there is a lot of potential on a team that is looking to break out after being rather quiet over the past couple years. Don’t sleep on Pitt in the ACC, as all signs point to them getting back on track and being a strong force once the NCAA tournament comes around in March and April.
Written By The Burgh Blog Co-Creator Brandon Stiehler
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