The sting from their NCAA tournament loss had not yet evaporated from the locker room inside Bradley Center Sunday after the Pitt Panthers were eliminated by Xavier in a second-round game. Senior guard Jermaine Dixon conducted interviews with tears in his eyes as reality set in that he had played his last game with the Panthers. ¶ Scattered about the quiet room were his teammates who wanted to acknowledge Dixon's importance to the program before they could look ahead to what appears to be a very bright future.
"He's the heart and soul of this team," redshirt freshman Travon Woodall said. "He made all of us better players. He changed a lot of us from boys to men. It's hard right now. We have a lot of people coming back, but someone else has to step up and be an emotion leader like Jermaine was. This season was his season."
If this was Dixon's season it will be remembered as one when the Panthers bridged the gap between Pitt basketball generations. Dixon was the only returning starter from a team that advanced to the Elite Eight in 2009. The Panthers, the most inexperienced team in the Big East Conference, were picked to finish ninth in the conference in a preseason poll of the league's coaches.
In a season when many expected coach Jamie Dixon to rebuild, the Panthers won 25 games, finished in second place in the Big East and extended Pitt's NCAA tournament streak to nine seasons.
"I'm definitely proud of the way we played this year and fought, everything we accomplished," Jermaine Dixon said. "I'm still hurt because we felt we could go further. We had three goals and we didn't accomplish any of them. I'm definitely proud of those guys. I wish them guys the best of luck."
Almost every elite college basketball program goes through stages of rebuilding. North Carolina became the second defending national champion in three years not to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Connecticut, for the second time in four years, failed to make the tournament after advancing to the Final Four a year ago.
Pitt is one of a handful of schools that has been able to make the tournament year after year. Pitt is one of only seven schools in Division I to make the NCAA tournament nine years in a row.
Over that nine-year period, Pitt owns the best winning percentage of any Big East team, in and out of league play. In his seven seasons as Pitt's head coach, Jamie Dixon has won 20 or more games every season, including at least 10 Big East wins every year. He is the only coach in the conference who can boast that.
With four returning starters Pitt will be among the preseason favorites to win the Big East next season. The Panthers will return 86 percent of their scoring and 91 percent of their rebounding. The only other player who is graduating is little-used reserve guard Chase Adams.
Sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs had a breakthrough season and led the team in scoring. Junior guard Brad Wanamaker developed into the team's best playmaker. And Gary McGhee and Nasir Robinson gave solid minutes in the post in their first seasons as starters.
Gilbert Brown was among Division I's best bench players and could claim a starting position next season. Woodall developed into a reliable reserve late in the season.
But the player who might determine whether Pitt has another good season or a great one is freshman center Dante Taylor, a McDonald's All-American who struggled to find his place on the team.
Taylor never looked completely comfortable. He must add strength to his 6-foot-9 frame and develop a scoring touch. If he is able to do that, the Panthers could be a far more dangerous offensive team next season because they are sorely lacking a low-post scoring presence.
Taylor might be one of several players who has a different role next season as well. Taylor might move to power forward, a position where he feels most comfortable even though his services at center still might be needed. Brown, who played mostly power forward this season, could go back to playing small forward. Wanamaker, who played mostly small forward this season, could be the starting shooting guard. Gibbs, when he's not playing point guard, could play more shooting guard if Woodall continues his development.
Plus, one or two of the three highly regarded incoming freshmen -- J.J. Moore, Isiah Epps and Cameron Wright -- could push for playing time, too.
The Panthers admitted this season that they were motivated by the naysayers who claimed they would not continue the school's NCAA tournament streak. Next season's motivation will be different.
The expectations will be high from the beginning of the season with so many pieces returning from the Big East's second-place team.
"We re going to try to remember this loss," Robinson said. "We want it to motivate us, to get us better as a team. We want to try to come back stronger next year."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or 412-263-1230.