Pitt has a chance to turn things around next season
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Three of the four teams that competed in the Final Four this past weekend missed the NCAA tournament in the past 10 years. Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State have that in common with Pitt, which missed the Big Dance for the first time in a decade this season.
The vast majority of elite college basketball programs -- even the blue bloods of the sport -- miss the tournament on occasion. Duke, North Carolina, Connecticut and Syracuse have not made the NCAA tournament as well in recent years.
The big difference between Pitt and those teams is the Panthers don't recruit at the same level. Coach Jamie Dixon does not regularly land McDonald's All-Americans, and when he has, those players have not panned out or have transferred.
Pitt won't return to the top of the Big East Conference because of its personnel. If the Panthers want to return to the NCAA tournament next year they have to rediscover pride in some basic principles of the program's foundation.
Tray Woodall's season was hampered by an abdominal injury and he missed 11 of 12 games in the middle of the schedule. Without Woodall in the lineup Pitt lost eight consecutive games, a slide from which it could not recover.
Woodall was never completely healthy after November, so it might not be fair to judge him based on this season, but he must improve for the Panthers to become a Big East contender again next season.
He proved to be a good shooter and scorer, but his uneven play, especially in clutch situations, was troublesome.
Woodall's assist-to-turnover ratio for the season was less than 2:1 and paled in comparison to the likes of Levance Fields and Brandin Knight, the point guards by which the standard for the program has been set.
One of the areas Woodall has to improve most is poise in late-game situations. The Panthers were 1-16 in games when trailing with five minutes remaining, with the lone victory coming against Butler in the College Basketball Invitational. Woodall was injured for many of those games, but there were a few when he did not step up and make the plays necessary to win in pressure situations.
Pitt had the ball with a chance to take the lead against Louisville with 20 seconds remaining. Woodall not only rushed a shot unnecessarily, but the shot missed badly.
The Panthers also were in position to win close games late in the season against Seton Hall, Connecticut and Washington State. Woodall identified the problems in late-game execution as a lack of poise.
"We didn't have a lot of poise in those situations," he said. "And that starts with me. I have to show more poise."
Woodall waited three seasons to finally get his opportunity to run the team. The injury prohibited him from playing to his full potential. He has one final season remaining to prove he can be the type of point guard the Panthers need to return to winning form.
Center Steve Adams, a 6-foot-11 native of New Zealand, is the highest-rated recruit signed by Dixon, and he could help return the Panthers to prominence in a jiffy.
Dixon's best teams, save for the 2010-11 squad that won the Big East regular-season championship, have been ones with an NBA-caliber player in the middle commanding attention on offense and dominating with rebounding on defense.
Chris Taft filled that role on Dixon's first two teams. He was followed by Aaron Gray and then DeJuan Blair. That type of presence has been missing for the past three seasons, but Adams has the skills to provide that presence. And those skills will help the Panthers return to a style that served them well in the past.
Adams is not a polished low-post scorer by any means, but he has touch and tenacity, two ingredients that are absent in the limited repertoire of Dante Taylor, a McDonald's All-American who will be a senior next season.
Taylor has not improved much in his three seasons with the team and should be designated for a role as a reserve. Taft and Blair started as freshmen, and there is reason to believe Adams will do the same.
Taft averaged 10.9 points and 7.5 rebounds as a freshman. Blair 11.6 points and 9.1 rebounds his first year. If Adams can produce similar numbers in his first season it will help immensely.
The Panthers also have some issues at power forward with three-year starter Nasir Robinson graduating. Dixon could land a junior college power forward to fill that role or hand the position to Talib Zanna, who spent most of this season out of position as a center.
Whatever the case, center remains the most important position in the frontcourt, and Adams has to be ready for prime time if the Panthers are going to show marked improvement.
Perhaps the most shocking element of Pitt's demise was the way the Panthers played on defense.
This was by far the worst defensive team Dixon has coached. The Panthers allowed opponents to shoot 44.1 percent from the field and gave up 65.5 points per game. It was the highest field-goal percentage defense for the program since 1998-99 and the most points allowed since 1999-2000.
This is not to suggest the Panthers have to be the best defensive team in Division I as they were in Dixon's first season in 2003-04 when they allowed 56.4 points per game. Dixon knew he had to recruit better offensive players to become a national title contender, and he successfully did that over time.
Dixon's best teams -- the 2008-09 and 2010-11 editions -- were highly efficient on offense but also played good defense.
This season's team did not have personnel suited for a good defense. The Panthers were slow and did not match up athletically on the perimeter, and they lacked a strong inside presence.
The latter should change with Adams coming in, but there is much work to be done by the returning group of guards.
The biggest emphasis of the offseason should be Dixon getting his players who had become enamored of their offensive abilities to buy into the defensive concept that made Pitt into an annual NCAA tournament team.
The teams in the Final Four this weekend gave up fewer than 62 points per game and did not allow opponents to shoot better than 41 percent. Kentucky, Louisville and Kansas were Nos. 1, 3 and 4 in Division I in field-goal percentage defense.
Rediscovering a defensive identity is paramount to Pitt starting a new NCAA tournament streak.
First Published April 2, 2012 12:00 am