Josh Newkirk, walking off the floor Saturday after an NCAA tournament third-round loss to Florida, was one of three freshmen that got a lot of experience for the Panthers this season.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Now that Pitt's basketball season is over, it is time to assess the good and the bad and look ahead.
Overall, the Panthers had a successful season, winning 26 games that included 11 ACC regular-season games, two ACC tournament games and one NCAA tournament game.
They finished fifth in the ACC, one spot ahead of preseason projections. Given Pitt's record against the top four ACC teams in the regular season (0-5), the Panthers were a distant fifth.
That underscores the work that needs to be done.
Considering where the Panthers were last summer after a mass exodus, Pitt exceeded expectations in many ways.
The Panthers lost Tray Woodall and Dante Taylor to graduation, then lost freshman center Steven Adams to the NBA draft. Before last season, sophomore John Johnson decided to transfer. Malcolm Gilbert left in December of last season, and, after the season, Trey Zeigler and J.J. Moore both made an exit.
That left the Panthers with five returning scholarship players -- seniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, junior Cam Wright and sophomores James Robinson and Durand Johnson.
The defections also left a major hole in the frontcourt that was addressed in recruiting when Pitt signed two freshmen power forwards -- Jamel Artis and Mike Young -- and landed two frontcourt transfers -- Derrick Randall and Joe Uchebo.
Pitt began the season with a freshman combination -- Artis and Young -- at power forward and Randall as the backup center, but the Panthers also had freshmen Josh Newkirk and Chris Jones coming off the bench.
A weak non-conference schedule, a schedule that was put together clearly to allow a team in transition to get some early wins, enabled the Panthers to get off to a fast start and enabled the new players to gain confidence and improve.
The lone blemish against the only ranked team the Panthers played, Cincinnati, and it demonstrated many of the problems Pitt eventually would encounter, such as the inability to score for long stretches, their failure to make key free throws and the absence of players not named Lamar Patterson who could create their own shots.
These issues would be a recurring theme in the ACC season, and the loss against Duke, in many ways, showed a blueprint to beat the Panthers as the Blue Devils had Rodney Hood guard Patterson and forced others to beat them.
Such issues were magnified after sixth man Durand Johnson went down with an ACL injury, that left the Panthers with four experienced players for the stretch run.
Pitt's offensive woes, combined with nagging injuries to Patterson and Zanna, led to a stretch of five losses in a seven-game span.
When the Panthers got healthy, the freshmen, particularly Newkirk, closed the season strong and Pitt won three of its last four regular-season games and then two more in the ACC tournament to lock in their NCAA tournament bid.
Pitt won its first round game against Colorado impressively, but the Panthers' season come to a crashing halt Saturday when they got pounded by Florida.
Regardless of how it ended, the season seemed to stabilize a program that was reeling a bit after all those losses.
Furthermore, how much experience Young, Artis and Newkirk got as freshmen should provide the foundation for a very good team next season.
The Panthers must replace Patterson's offense and Zanna's points and rebounds, but Wright, Young and guard Robinson returning as starters to go along with Johnson, Artis, Newkirk, Randall and Jones (limited by a thumb injury much of the season) there is cause for some optimism.
Johnson is said to be on schedule with his rehab, which would mean he likely will be ready by mid-December, Jones will need offseason surgery to fix his thumb, and Young will need rest to get his back healthy.
And there are four players -- 6-foot-11 center Shaquille Doorson, 6-8 forwards Ryan Luther and Sheldon Jeter and junior-college forward/center Tyrone Haughton -- coming in to give coach Jamie Dixon plenty of size to shore up the frontcourt.
There also is a solid backcourt foundation with Robinson, Newkirk and Wright, but someone must emerge as a high-level scorer to fill the considerable void left by Patterson's departure.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
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