The home crowd at the Petersen Events Center says goodbye today to three Pitt seniors who have been integral to the team's success almost from their first game.
• Ronald Ramon has been a starter or at least an important contributor to the rotation since early in his freshman season.
• Mike Cook started every game after becoming eligible in 2006, following a transfer from East Carolina, until his season ended in December with a knee injury.
• Keith Benjamin had been toward the bottom of the rotation, but nevertheless in it, until he was given a chance to start this season and blossomed like few expected.
That's the way it works most of the time at Pitt. Players come in ready to play and play for four years. There are exceptions: At one extreme was Chris Taft, who was ready to play immediately but left after two seasons. At the other end were big men Levon Kendall and Aaron Gray, who weren't ready to contribute much as freshmen but did so for their final three seasons.
In between, there have been the likes of Brandin Knight, Julius Page, Jaron Brown, Chevy Troutman, Carl Krauser and Antonio Graves, who typify what has become the Pitt way. This steady flow of mostly four-year players has enabled the Panthers to go to six consecutive NCAA tournaments. A seventh is virtually assured. Only the slight possibility of the Panthers losing today against DePaul and in their first game in the Big East tournament could possibly keep them out of the 65-team field.
Going to the tournament seven consecutive years is a considerable accomplishment but one some Pitt fans don't always appreciate. In the past six tournaments, the Panthers never have won more than two games and have an overall record of 9-6. That mark doesn't figure to get any better this month. Pitt doesn't look to have the talent to win more than one game in the tournament.
It's understandable that once expectations were raised, and they were in 2002, fans kept waiting for more.
The philosophy of the Pitt program in the Ben Howland-Jamie Dixon era has emphasized team over individual. Some of that has to do with coaching style, some of it has to do with a failure to land the great player who might only stick around a year or two but who could carry the team deeper in the tournament. It's possible the former affects the latter. The team-oriented philosophy might hurt Pitt in recruiting.
The case could be made, for example, that if Carmelo Anthony had matriculated at Pitt instead of Syracuse in 2002, he would not have led his team to the NCAA title as a freshman. With seniors Knight and Ontario Lett, juniors Page and Brown and sophomore Troutman established at Pitt, the question is: Would Anthony have been able to assert himself as he did in Syracuse?
There's nothing approaching NBA-ready talent in Pitt's next freshman class, but that doesn't necessarily mean the program will continue at its present level. There could be a decline in the future.
Pitt's past two recruiting classes have not measured up to the norm, and while that doesn't figure to be a factor next season, it could in the years after that. Next year the Panthers will be anchored by seniors Sam Young and Levance Fields, and sophomore DeJuan Blair. All three have the capability of being all-conference. Even if there's a falloff after them, their talent should be enough to carry the program. But when Young, Fields and backup Tyrell Biggs depart after the 2009 season, Pitt could be in for an abrupt decline.
Dixon brought in two freshmen in 2006, Gilbert Brown and Austin Wallace. In 2007, the freshman class was Blair, Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee. Only Blair has made an impact, and it's a major one. He's a big-time player. From him there's a steep falloff. Brown was adequate as a starter when Cook and Fields were hurt. But given plenty of opportunity, he did not create high expectations. Wanamaker fell out of the rotation early in the season, got back in it when the injuries occurred but lately has been seldom used. In consecutive games against Louisville, Cincinnati and Syracuse, he played a total of five minutes. McGhee has contributed at times but needs to make major strides if he's ever to be a factor in the Big East.
Wallace, like Brown, was redshirted last year. He has not played this year because of injury. Because of those redshirts, Pitt has no sophomore class.
The way the talent level looks for the future, the long-awaited breakthrough to a deeper tournament run might instead be replaced by no tournament run.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .