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.