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March 14, 2012

I think one thing I find frustrating after this season is the use of the word embarrassing to describe this team. I get why the players say it. They were the ones doing the losing. They were the ones being beat. I struggle with we, as fans, using it to describe theteam. Especially when it carries to such a level to be personal.

Embarrassing teams to me are the ones that do something more than merely lose games. Ones that quit on the coach or the season (Illinois). The ones that get embroiled in off-the-field or -court messes. Or have so many other distractions that the program looks to be in complete disarray (UCLA). Then I get it. It is a feeling that their actions reflect badly on our school and what we feel it represents. But just for losing games?

Not to say there aren’t plenty of other ways to describe this team. Disappointing. Frustrating. Inconsistent. Underachieving. Sloppy.

When seasons like this happen, no one wants excuses. Heck, reasons are barely tolerable. We just want it fixed. No one cares that it happens to other teams — because it is other teams.

Still, it matters to understand what happened. Why? Because it is the only way to know if there should be reason for optimism next year and beyond.

There are the obvious things.

Khem Birch leaving 10 games into the season was a big loss. He was starting, averaging around 15 minutes a game and figured to see more minutes as the season progressed. Birch was not a tremendous offensive threat (despite what he believes), but his leaping and blocking ability made him important defensively. That made an already weak defensive team, weaker.

Injuries were not of the season ending variety, but they were significant enough to play a big impact.

Nasir Robinson, who you can question for many things, but not his toughness. Not when he was getting a knee drained every other day.  When he’s admitting that the knee issues were bad enough that he would have redshirted if he were not a senior. He is not and never was a vocal leader, but when you talk about setting the example and leading that way, it was Nas. But it is clear how much it was hurting him in the second half of conference play. His minutes dropped — even though it was a point when Pitt still had a glimmer of hope for the NCAA — as did his rebounding and scoring.

I don’t know if we will ever be sure how much Ashton Gibbs was hurting. There were reports of nagging ankle issues, but how much of an impact is questionable at best.

The injury to Tray Woodall was the biggest one. I have to believe not having Woodall almost certainly cost Pitt the Wagner, Cinci and DePaul games. A reasonable case could have been made for the Marquette and/or Syracuse games. Maybe Woodall wouldn’t keep shooting as well as he did pre-injury — and reviewing the game logs would suggest that he was cooling off on his 3-point shooting even before hand. But his loss was obvious when he was injured, and definitely didn’t make it all the way back this year.

We all know about the daily injections just to deaden the pain. The big thing, though, was that post injury his turnovers went up, and after a couple weeks he was not able to penetrate to the basket like he had before being hurt.

Starting when he returned for the Louisville game, he only matched or exceeded the 2:1 assists to turnover ratio 6 times. He had 5 games where he had more turnovers than assists. His number of trips to the free throw line dropped significantly as well right after the Villanova game. If he wasn’t hitting 3s, from that point on, he was not doing much on the offense.

That didn’t even bring up the biggest issue of the injury. Having to play Gibbs nearly full-time at point guard for the 11 games plus most of the Notre Dame game.

The Ashton Gibbs point-guard experiment. Even before Woodall’s injury, we knew it would take place. It had to be done. Gibbs had returned for his senior year. Coach Jamie Dixon was going to give him the chance to show that he had ball-handling skills sufficient for some sort of pro-career. Any coach would have done it for a returning senior who had given much to the coach and the program. I know that there are plenty of people harboring negative feelings about Gibbs. Plenty of revisionism to denigrate his contributions. Before this season, though, Gibbs was one of the most popular Pitt players. A 3-point ace who has hit some big shots in his career.

Unfortunately, Gibbs is not a ball-handler. He will never be a combo-guard, let alone someone who can play point. He is an excellent shooter, with limited athleticism, and unable to create his own shot. Shaky defense, and insufficient size to play in the NBA.

Still, limited point duties to help spell Woodall was reasonable. And maybe it would let Gibbs come to the logical conclusion that he should just stick to his skill set. Or Coach Dixon would simply make him accept it for the good of the team.

Unfortunately for Pitt, Gibbs was really the only option after Woodall went down. The offense was a stagnant with Gibbs running things. He became visibly frustrated and upset with how things were going. Then three games after Woodall’s injury Birch left.

In hind sight, the combination of Gibbs’ frustrations, Birch’s departure and the stagnating offense probably had a greater impact on disrupting the team chemistry than we even know now. The hallmark of the Pitt teams for over a decade has been the camaraderie and team chemistry. The one year it unraveled was late in the 2004-05 season when Chris Taft and Chevon Troutman lost all focus on the season.

The team tried to come together, but the struggles to generate offense was too much. Too many of the players on this squad are not defense first players. The offensive frustrations, created more defensive lapses and breakdowns. The lack of communication on the court, continued even after Woodall returned. Players not shouting warning of screens, not letting a ball handler know when a defender was coming from behind. The little things they missed that only magnified all the other problems.

Those 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 before.

Then there are the misses on recruiting. That can’t be ignored in a season like this. The lack of depth inside is obvious. Pitt has done well with some marginal 3-star bigs developing: Chevon Troutman, Aaron Gray and Gary McGhee. But they also missed in recent years with J.J. Richardson and Dwight Miller. Either of which, if they had developed (especially on defense) would have been useful this year. Neither, though, progressed sufficiently in their first two years and left the program. That left the team with only Taylor and Zanna. Neither is particularly strong on defense, but little experienced alternatives.

Isiah Epps is another glaring miss. A point guard that has proven to be too slow, weak on defense and lacking much confidence at this point.

It’s worth noting that one of the other guards Pitt was pursuing around the same time of Epps was Mookie Jones. Jones committed to Syracuse, instead. He left the Orange partway through this season, because he couldn’t get off the bench. Epps chose Pitt and then ended up in prep school for another year before getting to Pitt.

Misses on recruiting happen. But if you miss too much in a short time, it catches up with you. And if the starters get hurt or aren’t good enough, it becomes glaring. This was yet another factor in how this season went.

Then there is the talent that isn’t quite ready or running late.

Malcolm Gilbert is extremely promising, but he is also a freshman. As much as everyone wants to see him out there — as much out of frustration with the guys in front of him, as for his potential — I think Coach Dixon handled him rather well. He does a few things well right now, but he is no where near ready. He has extremely limited offense, and while his presence is solid for altering shots and some blocks, he also has more fouls (15) than rebounds (14).

John Johnson was a pleasant surprise. Showing a fair amount of fearlessness out there, and excited many early. He was also up-and-down in performance. He likes to gamble on defense, leaving susceptible to being blown past or committing fouls. He averaged about 14 minutes a game, which seemed about right.

J.J. Moore came on late, but it can’t be ignored how awful he was playing from December to mid-February. He still needs to find consistency. In his shot, attacking the basket and his defense. He has shown in spurts how good he can be at all three. If he doesn’t sustain it from game to game, though, he will remain more “what if” than “wow.”

I’m probably being a tad optimistic to lump Zanna and Taylor in here. Especially Taylor at this point. It isn’t even that Taylor is really horrible. It’s just that he hasn’t matched hope or hype. Zanna, well, I just don’t know. He was always a project. There were stretches this season, where it seemed like he was starting to get it. Then he just disappeared over the last 8 games. The rebounds trailed off (25), and the fouls went up (26).

I’m not forgetting Coach Dixon’s mistakes. He struggled putting rotations together this year — with and without Woodall. He was stubborn in accepting that he had to teach and use the zone defense with this team. Generally, this team did not look like a team that was well coached. The screens were sloppy. The motion on the offense often wasn’t. The communication poor. Help defense was constantly late. The offense — never particularly strong against the press — seemed absolutely flummoxed this year.

Maybe he was just trying to reach the players. Maybe the season got to him. Maybe he’s just more comfortable doing it now, but this was the first season that Coach Dixon expressed frustrations with players in the media. He’s always gone out of his way to protect players and not say anything of substance in-between or right after games. This year, though, he’s let stuff out.

I think the jury is still out about assistants Barton and Knight. A year ago, no one had complaints about Brandon Knight on the bench. Bill Barton is only in his first season as an assistant, so I am not sure how good or bad he is. Barton has the ties to schools like Notre Dame Prep, so this coming season will go a ways to determining his worth on the recruiting trail.





The recruiting for next year better not miss. The returning players woulg struggle fo .500 in the conference. Biggest concern I have is the guards. Woodall is never going to be a great point or shooter (he is ok at both), and team will be amess against pressure if some ball handlers are not on the horizon
with Adams joining the bigs, we will be good enough,
and Patterson and JJ are decent as long as someone else handles the ball against pressure.
In my mind reducing turnovers is the key to the year, and a huge issue this year, the phantom pass needs to disapear.

Comment by Jimbo 03.14.12 @ 2:07 pm

If you compare the way Georgetown and Pitt move the ball on offense there is an obvious difference. Georgetown constantly has screens and movement to get players open. Working off the ball is so important when a team like Pitt doesn’t have a real perimeter shooter. Pitt needs its offense to improve more so than the need to even change up the defense.

Comment by Timmeh 03.14.12 @ 2:07 pm

Chas – Well thought out and tempered editorial. I concur on almost everything. I coached in HS and barely survived the parental pressure on a team that had won a single game the previous year and in my first year, we went to the playoffs and lost to a team we had beaten twice. Parents were calling for my head. I cannot imagine the pressure Coach Dixon faces daily and my mulligan is to him for any and all decisions he made this year! He did what most coaches do (on the fly) and went with what he knew. The pieces simply did not fit.

Chas. the above article was your best work yet.
Thanks so much for all you do. See you at the Spring Game. Love to meet others there. Let’s work something out.

HTP

Comment by Dan 72 03.14.12 @ 3:02 pm

I’m not worried about coach Dixon. I’m worried about our players. There is really no one coming back to be excited about. Everyone turns it over with no pressure and plays lazy D

Comment by Tony C 03.14.12 @ 3:57 pm

Unless JJ Moore becomes Sam Young, Robinson becomes an instant guard upgrade, and Adams is the next DeJuan Blair then we will be a bubble team at the very best. You just can’t hide deficiencies like Taylor, Zanna, Wright, Epps, Gilbert and have your guards turn it over at such a high rate

Comment by Tony C 03.14.12 @ 4:05 pm

Our team will be better next year just for having played together for one more season. Also,:
– upgrade at Center.
– more solid at PG, with Woodall actually able to play with the team all year (hopefully) and a solid back up in Robinson.
– this is a very “up” year in college b-ball because of the NBA-lockout threat. Remember, a lot of guys stayed that wouldn’t have otherwise making the landscape more competitive. There will be an exodus (relatively speaking) after this year. I’m talking NCAA-wide, lower the bar for the NCAA. But just in the BE both Cuse & Uconn are going to lose half their starting rosters.

I’m pretty confident we’ll be back in the tournament next year with room to spare.

Comment by PantherP 03.14.12 @ 4:21 pm

Well, wouldn’t tonights game be a perfect time to get some of these players that I keep hearing “aren’t ready” some real game experience.

I can’t think of a better time???

If it’s “too late” for that, then well, isn’t it “too late” to be playing these games??

I hope this is not some lame attempt at a Gibbs and Robinson farewell mulligan tour.

Big Jamie fan, looking forward to seeing lots of the younger guys get some playing time.

I hope I’m not posting “WTF?” tonight at mid-night.

Comment by Dan 03.14.12 @ 5:33 pm

I can accept losing if a team plays at or near their capabilities and somehow ends up losing because the other team made a play to beat them. But this team gave away several games through sloppy passing, poor shot selection, weak defense and poor foul shooting.

Hopefully, Pitt’s returning players will use this year as inspiration to become a more cohesive and better disciplined team. Jamie can start preparing his team for next season by emphasizing basketball fundamentals. When a team lacks five star players, its only hope of being competitive is to play sound fundamental basketball.

In years past, Pitt remained competitive by playing tough on defense and deliberate on offense through good ball movement always looking for the high percentage shot. Hopefully, Pitt’s last year in the Big East will be one with a respectable finish in the Big East and an NCAA invitation.

Hail to Pitt!

Comment by MariettaMike 03.15.12 @ 7:32 am

I agree with most of what you are saying, the thing that bothered me the most, is that with Gibbs running the point at times, he hoilsted a lot of quick shots. There were far too many posessions where Pitt shot the ball earlier in the shot clock and lead to the other team going on a run. Injuries happen, put I have to put much of the blame on coaching and recruiting. If you look at a simular situation ala 2006-2007 where Mike Brown got hurt in the Duke and Levance Fields broke his foot the next game, Pitt still ralied that season and ended up winning the BE tourney. That team slowed down the offense and stepped up on ‘D’. If I remember correctly, there were almost no quick shots and the defense was very good. You also had a young blair and quality backups like Ramon and Bennjamin who stepped up significantly when the starters got hurt. To me missing on Epps hurt the team too much because no one could run the offense. Also, putting Epps into the end of Depaul game was a head-scratcher. Gibbs had way too many green lights to shoot and I think that the team needed to hold up for good shots at the end of games (Seton Hall, Depaul, UConn) insted of having Gibbs hoist up threes. Jamie has to know that this team even with an Adams will be very limited offensively and will need to go back to it’s defensive roots. Focus on defense and Rebounding. Last night I watch USF destroy California, and I conceed that the Pac12 is weak, I still saw what Pitt used to be in USF. Stiffiling ‘D’ limit the other team posessions. This year’s addition of Pitt just simply didn’t do that.

Comment by muddiepitt99 03.15.12 @ 8:23 am

muddiepitt99,

2 small corrections. That was the 07-08 team, and it was Mike Cook.

A key difference on that 07-08 team, though, was that the front court was a huge advantage for Pitt. Sam Young and DeJuan Blair demanded constant attention, and took some of the pressure off the backcourt. This year’s team was much more guard/perimeter focused.

You also point out the presence of Benjamin. A senior. That kind of bench luxury was huge for that season. Imagine the results, instead, if Pitt had been forced to use Wanamaker more that season.

Comment by Chas 03.15.12 @ 9:21 am

Sorry about the mistakes, my memory is not the same as it has been. Benjamin and Ramon where sleeper players that season because they did so much to help the team win. Come to think about it, was Gibbs any better than Ramon was? Ramon was a spot up outside shorter than could not get his own shot and was not a good defender, Gibbs might be a slightly better shooter, but still has liabilies on ‘D’ and cannot create his own offense.

What Pitt needed was a Kemba Walker like performance for Aston Gibbs. He needed to be able to take over the game off of the dribble and hit shots when open. Neither of those things happend. Maybe it had to do with Tray getting hurt, but Gibbs liabilities showed through. Not sure what could have made Aston better off of the dribble. Maybe sprints or Plyometrics? But he was slow and tended to dribble the ball off his back foot alot.

Comment by muddiepitt99 03.15.12 @ 12:48 pm

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