Has move to ACC hurt Pitt basketball?
When Pitt stumbled to 19 wins last season — the fewest in the Jamie Dixon era — there were suggestions the Panthers were suffering from a Big East hangover.
The Panthers enjoyed unprecedented success in the Big East under Dixon, rising to among the elite teams in arguably the toughest, most competitive conference. They won two regular-season Big East titles and one conference tournament title and advanced to within a last-second layup of advancing to their first modern-era Final Four.
They entered the ACC expected to compete for league titles with the likes of perennial powers Duke and North Carolina in addition to Big East carryover Syracuse. The Panthers’ physical reputation suggested they might be able to bully themselves to the top against peers traditionally viewed as more finesse teams.
Yet results have been mixed for Pitt, which has missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the past four seasons and finished last season with the fewest wins of any Panthers team in 15 years.
“A few years ago, the question was, ‘Why isn’t Pitt getting to the Final Four?” said Jeff Goodman of ESPN. “Now the question is, ‘Are they going to get to the NCAA Tournament?’ It’s totally changed.”
No. 1 culprit?
Pitt advanced to the NCAA Tournament in each of Dixon’s first eight seasons but has managed only invitations to the NIT (first-round loss) and third-tier CBI postseason tournaments in two of the past four seasons.
Only a five-win run to the CBI title helped Pitt save face for a 17-16 regular season in 2011-12.
After posting a 216-60 (.783) record in Dixon’s first eight seasons, the Panthers have managed a 91-51 (.641) mark since. They have not advanced past the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament since 2008-09.
A drop-off in recruiting often is cited as the reason for Pitt’s decline.
“Pitt had a clear identity in the Big East,” Goodman said. “Tough kids who maybe were a little underrecruited. Not a lot of top 50, maybe top 100 kids who had a chip on their shoulder. They lost their niche a little bit recruiting wise.
“Now you go in the ACC. From the outside, you look at them, it shouldn’t have that much of an impact. But it did.”
Case in point: Pitt was picked to finish 10th out of 15 teams in the ACC preseason poll last month.
The Panthers boasted top-30 recruiting classes six times in Dixon’s 13 seasons, according to Rivals.com. The last came three years ago. Recruiting classes are seeing a geographic shift: Classes once characterized by signees from the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia regions are starting to include players who have ties to the South.
“Those kids that maybe you could sell on coming to Pittsburgh and playing St. John’s and Seton Hall and all the schools nearby, you can’t have that sales pitch as much anymore,” Goodman said. “Now the majority of schools are down South.
“Pittsburgh fans were spoiled. There was so much success there. But they’re not Duke. They’re not North Carolina.”
Dixon did not address his track record in recruiting but suggested this season might mirror those of his first eight seasons more than the past four.
“We’re a whole new team,” he said. “We’re deep, deeper than we have been.
“We can talk about what happened in the past, but we’re a team that I think we’re more accustomed to (at Pitt). Our depth (makes) us a better defensive team. We didn’t have it last year.”
For every DeJuan Blair (Schenley) and Michael Young (Duquesne native) who Dixon has landed, there is a DeAndre Kane (Schenley), D.J. Kennedy (Schenley) or T.J. McConnell (Chartiers Valley) who got away.
The latest notable local is former Lincoln Park standout Maverick Rowan. He committed to Pitt but relocated to Florida and eventually signed with ACC rival N.C. State, where he is expected to contribute immediately.
“Pitt loved New York kids when (former assistant) Barry Rohrssen (now at St. John’s) was there,” Lincoln Park basketball coach Mike Bariski said. “Their first look was New York, and they overlooked a lot of kids that left here.”
Pitt also recently lost out on Kennedy Catholic senior big man Sagaba Konate, who selected West Virginia over Purdue, Wichita State and Dayton after committing to the Panthers.
“I was totally dumbfounded. I thought Pitt was a done deal,” Kennedy Catholic coach Rick Mancino said.
Said Bariski: “It’s kind of a PR thing if you let the best players go and kids start hearing, ‘They don’t recruit Western Pennsylvania.’ ”
Bariski said he recommended two of his former players to Dixon: center Devontae Watson and forward Elijah Minnie. Bariski said Dixon wasn’t interested in Watson, and early academic concerns with Minnie scared away Pitt, which only at the 11th hour showed interest. Watson starts for Temple and Minnie for Robert Morris.
Pitt is in the mix for current Lincoln Park junior Nelly Cummings, who also is drawing interest from West Virginia and Indiana, Bariski said. Meanwhile, the Panthers have made scholarship offers to North Allegheny junior Curtis Aiken Jr., son of the former Pitt great, and Mars sophomore Robby Carmody, who’s being recruited by several Power 5 programs, Purdue and West Virginia included.
Four ACC teams — North Carolina (No. 1), defending national champion Duke (No. 5), Virginia (No. 6) and Notre Dame (No. 19) — are in the preseason Associated Press Top 25. To compete, Bariski said, Pitt needs to land McDonald’s All-Americans.
“You want to be recruiting top 40 players,” Bariski said. “When Pitt was in the Big East, that’s a different kind of recruit. You need to switch that mindset and find those athletic kids instead of the bangers.”
Does Pitt’s style — or perhaps its reputation as a team that covets physical play over athleticism — hamper recruiting efforts and therefore its play?
That’s a possibility, if Rowan is a case study.
Rowan spent his junior year playing in Florida after leading Lincoln Park to WPIAL and PIAA titles in 2013-14, when he was named the state’s Class A Player of the Year.
Ranked in the top 50 in the Class of 2016 by ESPN and Rivals, Rowan selected N.C. State over Louisville, North Carolina, UCLA and Wisconsin after shunning Pitt.
“Pitt wasn’t the greatest fit for me. N.C. State was,” Rowan told the Tribune-Review in August. “Sometimes I don’t think I would have fit well in Jamie Dixon’s offense, the system he runs.”
Rowan’s aspirations, Bariski said, didn’t stop when Pitt offered a scholarship.
“Is he going to get looks from NBA scouts right away or his second year?” Bariski said. “The Pitt offense is just like the Virginia offense. If you get eight shots a game, you’re lucky. If Rowan’s getting 18 shots a game, he’s scoring in the 20s.”
Panthers junior forward Jamel Artis said Dixon’s system can change — and has — based on personnel.
Artis, for example, attempted a team-high 10 shots per game last season, including 13 games with at least 12 shots.
“I was getting hot, and (Dixon) made a couple extra plays for me,” said Artis, who led Pitt in scoring, averaging 13.6 points on 46.9 percent shooting. “They just kept feeding me the rock.”
In 2008-09, Sam Young attempted 14.4 shots per game. The Memphis Grizzlies selected Young in the second round of the 2009 NBA Draft.
Reverting to roots
Pitt’s 2015 recruiting class holds three players: point guards Damon Wilson and Jonathan Milligan and center Rozelle Nix. Dixon complemented the class with three graduate transfers who played their first three years at mid-majors Brown, Richmond and Coppin State.
Dixon announced Friday he planned to redshirt Nix, but he said the Panthers were fortunate to land Milligan, a junior-college transfer who signed late in the summer after originally signing with Florida Gulf Coast as the 25th-best point guard in the country (per ESPN) out of high school in 2012.
Goodman said Dixon is duplicating a strategy he used when the Panthers dominated the Big East.
“You’ve got to do it the way you did it (with) kids who played tougher and harder than everybody else,” Goodman said. “And older kids.”
Dixon remains confident in his method and hopeful the graduate transfers will contribute immediately.
They are “22, 23 years old and playing against (younger) guys,” Dixon said. “You can go through different programs and different situations where these guys have had an impact, some from what many might consider a lower level and were able to step in right away. That’s our hope.”
Wilson is the star of the class. The Atlanta native attended high school in New York and selected the Panthers over ACC rivals Virginia, Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Wilson is Pitt’s first four-star recruit since Michael Young in 2013.
“I like his confidence. I like his aggressiveness,” Dixon said. “He has a really quick first step.”
It could be Pitt’s biggest in returning to prominence.