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ACC Basketball Preview # 12 - Pitt

The Panthers feature a lot of talent back, two mature transfers and one highly intriguing freshman.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

When Ben Howland left Pitt, he promised fans that he was leaving the program in good hands. His former assistant Jamie Dixon, he promised, would be really good.

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That was, as it turns out, spot on: since taking over at Pitt, Dixon has won 288 games and has a winning percentage of .750.

For comparison purposes, Mike Krzyzewski's career winning percentage is .787, Roy Williams clocks in at .775, Rick Pitino at .743 and Jim Boeheim at .748.

The difference of course, and the knock on Dixon, is that despite his record of success, his teams are typically duds in the NCAA Tournament.

He did get to the Elite Eight in 2008-09, and he's made the Sweet Sixteen twice, but that's it.

And that leads to the second major Pitt/Dixon criticism, which is scheduling.

It's always, frankly, pathetic. This year?


Pitt will play in the Maui Invitational, but it's in Maui. Who wouldn't? It's not like it's the Newark Invitational.

But give them credit for at least taking some risk. The field includes Arizona, BYU, K-State, Missouri, Purdue and San Diego State, along with a few designated victims. So Pitt might get one, tough game, maybe more.

They'll also have a tour/cultural guide: sophomore walk-on Joshua Ko. He's not from Maui but from Oahu, but he's a native and surely can show his teammates around and keep them out of trouble.

Otherwise, it's Niagara, Samford, Hawaii, Chaminade, Indiana (as forced by the ACC), Duquesne, St. Bonaventure, Manhattan, Oakland, Holy Cross, Florida Gulf Coast and Bryant.

Not exactly Murderer's Row.

In the ACC, Pitt gets BC, FSU, Syracuse, Louisville for home-and-home.

For one-off road trips, Pitt plays at State, Duke, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Wake.

For home games, it's Clemson, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, UNC and Miami.

After just one season, it's pretty clear that Pitt falls into the FSU/Clemson/Virginia camp where defense is brutish, nasty and not at all short, but to further subdivide, Pitt and FSU run a lot more than Clemson or, heaven forfend, Virginia.

Pitt does somewhat resemble Virginia in that Dixon, like Tony Bennett, recruits for his system rather than necessarily going after McDonald's All-Americans. We don't doubt he would like to have them, but like Gary Williams and Al Skinner before him, he finds players that sometimes get overlooked but who work out well for Pitt.

Last year, Pitt managed a 5th place finish in its inaugural ACC season. The Panthers lose Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna from last year, and both will be tough to replace, but get back Durand Johnson, who went out after 16 games with a blown ACL.

As Barry Jacobs detailed for us earlier,  James Robinson had a spectacular assist/turnover ratio.

Pitt also returns Cameron Wright and Michael Young, so essentially four starters (assuming Johnson is fully recovered).

The Panthers also return Josh Newkirk and Jamel Artis, both sophomores who were in the rotation last season.

Newkirk averaged 17 mpg and 4.6 ppg. Artis claimed 15.4 mpg and 4.9 ppg.

Pitt also gains the services of Vandy transfer Sheldon Jeter. Jeter is 6-8 and fairly athletic. He also has some range. He'll help.

Jeter is from Beaver Falls, Pa., which is most famous as the hometown of Joe Namath, but is also the hometown of Papa John Creach, who played with Hot Tuna, and Thomas Midgley, Jr., who first put lead in gasoline and who also found time to invent chlorofluocarbons, both of which probably seemed like good ideas at the time.

Tyrone Haughton, a Miami native, comes to Pitt from Iowa Western Community College. He has two years of eligibility left.

Haughton racked up 185 blocks at Iowa Western; he's expected to be a solid defensive presence inside for Pitt.

The player we're curious about though is freshman Cameron Johnson.

He grew late, shooting up five inches between his junior and senior years, and now he's a 6-7 kid with point guard skills.

His father played at Pitt in the pre-ACC days.

Pitt's official site says some pretty extravagant things about fellow freshman Ryan Luther, comparing him to Dirk Nowitzki. He's also said to be athletic and to have excellent instincts.

Pitt also returns Raleigh native Josh Newkirk, Joseph Uchebo, Derrick Randall, Aron Phillips-Nwankwo, and Mike Lecak.

Newkirk averaged 17 mpg and 4.6 ppg. The others were spot players who could of course improve, but we wouldn't count on them necessarily getting major minutes.

This year?

The ACC is going to be really, really brutal. Duke, Carolina, Louisville, Virginia and Syracuse will all be picked to finish ahead of Pitt. Florida State might be too. All seven should be tournament teams.

The middle of the conference won't be easy either, with N.C. State, Clemson and Notre Dame all being capable of (at a bare minimum) big nights.

We'll have to wait and see with Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, as either could rise or fall, and the bottom tier should be BC and Virginia Tech.

Given the weak non-conference schedule, Pitt is going to have to rack up ACC wins to make the field. This team is capable of being very good, but will it? History says yes - but only to an extent.