February 23, 2012

Not Enough Cogs, No Stars (Yet)

Filed under: Basketball — Chas @ 12:00 pm

We are all frustrated with how badly Pitt basketball has been this season.

Whether it is the struggles with the defense. The inability to generate offense. Leadership. A chemistry issue. Talent. Development. Injuries. Other. All of the above.

Everyone has a pet theory or explanation. A grand unified theory that explains it all.

I’m not sure if there is one. Still, I guess I’ll take a stab at something.


Gone from this team are Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee. Solid players for Pitt. Guys who got at least a little better every year. They weren’t true stars, but they were big cogs on the team.

Cogs would be the best way to describe all of last year’s team. No stars really. Just cogs in the system. Robinson and Gibbs were the other cogs. Then it was a mix of bench and role players like Woodall, Taylor and Patterson who all played at least 10 minutes a game.

This has been the story with Pitt in the past few years. Plenty of cogs and the occasional stars — Blair, Young, Gray.

Coming into the season there were two sure cogs in Robinson and Gibbs. Woodall, Taylor and Patterson were expected to be cogs — and really Taylor was expected to be a potential breakout player. Players like Talib Zanna, J.J. Moore, Cameron Wright and Khem Birch were expected to be anywhere from role/bench players to cogs/developing stars (cog+).  Throw in John Johnson as another potential role player for this season, and the mix of depth and potential made it look like Pitt would keep on truckin’.

It hasn’t even come close to working that way. Woodall — before the injury — and Patterson both stepped up to be definite cogs. Solid guys in the system. Khem Birch was showing potential. At a minimum, a cog and more definitely could have been coming. Gibbs and Robinson were what was expected. Already at their ceiling.

Birch transferred abruptly and that significantly impacted Pitt’s frontcourt. I really don’t think there was anything Pitt could have done about this. Birch gave no warning. He was starting. He was getting minutes. People were in his ear. The same people that see him as their future meal ticket.

Woodall took a huge leap that really wasn’t expected. I think most of us expected him to be serviceable as the point. A placeholder for this season. Maybe a slight improvement in his shooting. Instead, he was the most important player out there. Possibly most importantly, with leadership. The other players definitely looked to him to do the talking, the communicating and get the team going.

Patterson proved to be a very solid player. He has really embraced the Brad Wanamaker-like role of a distributing guard/forward. He can score and goes after rebounds. What he does lack at this point is the ability to penetrate and knife to the basket. He gets cut-off too easily. That meant while Woodall was out, Pitt lacked players who consistently would attack the basket. Even with Woodall’s return, teams were only concerned with Woodall slashing from the perimeter.

Johnson was a pleasant surprise, early. Quickly becoming a vital bench player for the guards — though that has tailed off painfully the further into the Big East season the team went. Wright was a little below expectations, but at least had a role as a defensive player.

Zanna still seems too raw. Too up and down, to be counted on to be much more than a bench player this year. Something not unexpected considering he was a project player. Yet there he was starting and playing 15-20 minutes a game — whether productive or not. In part because of Birch leaving, but also because Dante Taylor never took the expected step forward.

Taylor and Moore have been guys to fall way short of expectations this year. Moore endured an absolutely miserable slump for most of the Big East conference season. Shooting poorly, and failing to attack the basket (over half of his shots have been 3s). Couple that with less than steady defense, and he gave little reason for significant playing time on his own.  His game against USF was beautiful, but had the unfortunate tinge of “where the hell was that all season?”

Moore is so tantalizing. He has the body and skills to be a great player. You can see the raw athleticism. The talent is obvious. The will and desire to do everything needed to realize that on a nightly, consistent basis, however, is not  — yet. No one in their right mind would or should consider giving up on Moore, or declare him a bust. For this season, though, he was needed/expected to take much more of a step forward. That simply didn’t happen.

Gilbert Brown was wildly inconsistent on offense during his final two seasons. What Brown did, was consistently play defense even when he was having his every other game poor shooting. On at least one side of the ball, Moore has to show consistency to stay out there. Coach Dixon still hasn’t figured out how to get Moore to understand that. There have been games where he has been yanked immediately when he didn’t play defense, and others where Moore has been allowed to keep playing. So far, neither approach made much of a difference over the course of the season.

Taylor’s play has been little more than that of a bench player this season, but he is getting more minutes than that of a bench player. Taylor is averaging 6.0 pts, 5.5 rebounds and nearly 19 minutes a game, but it is more than offset by his very weak defense. What’s more, while he has been frustratingly inconsistent in the course of the season, it has been a remarkably disappointing consistency with the slight uptick in points in rebounds as his minutes increased from his freshman to junior year. The shooting percentage, though has been a major drop considering how close to the basket he generally is.

Freshman — 13.9 min  — 3.7 rbs — 4.1 pts –.584 shooting

Sophomore – 15.1 min — 4.5 rbs — 5.1 pts — .616 shooting

Junior —— 18.8 min — 5.5 rbs — 5.9 pts — .534 shooting

At this point, Taylor is a below average defensive player with some occasional flashes of offense and rebounding. A bench player who can supply minutes and fouls. I’ve often compared him to Tyrell Biggs. To be fair, Taylor is actually a little better than Biggs offensively even at this point.

Biggs (2007-08) — 20 min — 4.1 rbs — 5.4 pts — .473 shooting

Biggs was a 4-star recruit that never really panned out. He had dreams of being a power forward but was not that good. Lacking a consistent shooting touch and ball handling ability, he found himself playing center. The saving grace was that Aaron Gray and then DeJuan Blair were there to start and dominate in front of Biggs. Seems familiar with Taylor, except that Taylor didn’t have someone that is clearly that much better than him in front this season.

Taylor is frustrating because his effort is so obviously inconsistent. Taylor had played with some urgency, aggression and energy after Birch had become the starter. He realized he was losing minutes and that he might even end up behind Zanna. As soon as Birch quit the team, Taylor’s energy dropped. [Stat that may drive home how much more passively Taylor started playing. In the 4 games before Birch quit, Taylor had 12 FT attempts. It took the next 11 games for Taylor to reach 12 FT attempts.] It is hard not to make the connection.

I don’t consider Taylor a bust, but then I set the bar rather high. A bust is someone like Mookie Jones. A guy who couldn’t even get mop-up time. In that vein, Isiah Epps is reasonably considered a bust. Renardo Sidney is a bust based on performance, sense of entitlement and his disruptions to Mississippi St. Taylor has been disappointing. No where near expectations. But he does contribute, and does not disrupt the team.

Hindsight makes a lot of things clear. Robinson was a solid cog — even if undersized at the 4. He is not, however, able to be the anchor and defensive force inside. The presence of Gary McGhee was a much larger impact defensively on Pitt’s frontcourt than anyone seemed to realize. No one on Pitt’s roster came close to filling that. Putting a lot more on Robinson — and exposing more of his weaknesses.

Gibbs is not and will never be a penetrator. He is/was at his best coming off the screens and being a shooter. His efforts to be more of a point or combo guard were painful. They definitely affected his attitude and the chemistry on the team.

Pitt has been short on cogs. Only Woodall, Gibbs, Robinson and Patterson. Then it is bench and role players: Taylor, Zanna, Moore, Johnson and Wright. The lack of inside presence has been painfully obvious in this latest losing streak.

Teams aren’t worried about having to stop the front court. They can be aggressive on Pitt’s backcourt — making it harder to set screens for Gibbs. Play tight on the backcourt, because of minimal fear of anyone on the perimeter attacking the basket.

That said, there is still plenty of reason to be optimistic about 2012-13. Not simply because Steve Adams and James Robinson will be on the team.

Woodall will finally have time to get healthy, and will have some relief at the point guard spot. Patterson has room to improve and has shown that he will keep working.

Malcolm Gilbert has already shown he can impact the defense at center, and with an offseason to get stronger, should be welcome strength inside (hopefully behind Adams).

Taylor and Zanna will have less pressure on them, and more size next to them. Taylor does appear to respond better to threats to his playing time. Really, though, they may be the biggest question mark.

Or it could be J.J. Moore. He will be a junior. You don’t want to read too much into the USF game anymore than you should his game against Rutgers (2-10, 10 pts, 1 rebound, 3 turnovers, 3 fouls, 24 minutes). If he takes the step forward we hoped would happen this year — and consistently attacks the basket. Well that would give Pitt at least two players capable of taking (and willing to take) their man off the dribble and drive to the hoop on the court. But Moore still has to show some consistency.

Durand Johnson is going to be a redshirt freshman, and expected to help fill the role of perimeter shooter. John Johnson will be back there as well. At worst, Cam Wright will be the defensive stopper/role player.


[…] are the things, most of us know. The issue of players who are cogs and the development (and non-development) of some players, I’ve hit […]

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