SALT LAKE CITY -- At his news conference after Wichita State's victory Thursday against Pitt in the NCAA tournament West Region, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall was asked if there was any clue before the game that his team would be able to handle the Panthers so well.
Marshall's response gave some keen insight into how opposing coaches view Pitt. Marshall relayed a conversation he had with his assistant coach, Chris Jans, before the game started.
"Chris Jans did an unbelievable job breaking Pitt down," Marshall said. "He told me going into the game he had an inner calm. They were bigger, but he felt we were quicker and he thought we could guard them."
Therein lies the problem with the Panthers. Coach Jamie Dixon has brought in big, physical players who have the ability to control games with their rebounding and defense. But he lacks an talented guard or wing player who can create offense and threaten opposing teams off the dribble.
Pitt's offense, while efficient for most of the season because of the team's ability to get offensive rebounds, was stagnant and unproductive toward the end of the campaign, mostly due to the inability of its guards to penetrate and open up a half-court offense that relied too much screening and ball movement.
Dixon will return four starters next season. He will return 76 percent of his scoring. Three raw freshmen who earned valuable experience this season will be front and center next season. Six players were in their first NCAA tournament game against Wichita State.
That experience will be important next season. Because of it, the Panthers likely will begin next season ranked in the top 25, perhaps even the top 15. They should be good enough to compete with the upper-echelon teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference and make the NCAA tournament for the 12th time in 13 years.
But Pitt's chances of reaching a Final Four, or even a Sweet 16, without the addition of an athletic guard or small forward that can score or break down opposing defenses aren't good.
The program has leveled off after three appearances in the Sweet 16 and one in the Elite Eight in Dixon's first six seasons as head coach.
Pitt has won two NCAA tournament games in the past four seasons. After reaching the Elite Eight in 2009, the Panthers have not made it past the Round of 32 in any of the past four seasons. The lack of an athletic offensive player is the most obvious reason for the decline.
Dixon has the scholarships available to infuse a much-needed talent upgrade into the roster. In the fall, he signed guard Josh Newkirk of Raleigh, N.C., and forward Mike Young of New Jersey to replace seniors Tray Woodall and Dante Taylor.
Newkirk is touted as a quick guard who was told by the coaching staff throughout the recruiting process that they envisioned him playing alongside James Robinson in a dual-point guard offense, similar to the one the Panthers used this season with Woodall and Robinson.
If Newkirk is not ready for a prime-time role as a freshman, Dixon has two scholarships that he can give to a junior-college player or a graduate transfer.
Those scholarships became available in the fall when John Johnson and Malcolm Gilbert decided to transfer from Pitt. Shortly after their departures, Dixon talked at length about the possibility of changing his recruiting practices to keep up with other coaches who were making their teams better by adding junior-college and graduate transfers.
Wichita State is a prime example. The top scorer for the Shockers is a junior-college player. Cleanthony Early scored 21 points against Pitt. Marshall said the Shockers would not have been able to make it back to the NCAA tournament this season without Early, who immediately infused scoring into his offense.
Marshall's point guard is Malcolm Armstead, a transfer from Oregon who sat out last season and had one season of eligibility that he is using this season with the Shockers. Armstead scored 22 points, dished out 5 assists and had only 1 turnover against Pitt.
Dixon has never recruited a graduate transfer and has recruited junior-college players with only limited success. But he said he is going to have to explore those options because other coaches are taking advantage of the NCAA rule on graduate transfers.
Dixon has a talented roster returning and the makings of a team that can be special next season, but how he utilizes his two remaining scholarships could go a long way toward determining how far the Panthers go this time next year.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published March 23, 2013 4:00 AM