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Pitt

Panther Hollow: 5 Questions For 2012-13 Men’s Basketball

By Matt Popchock
Jamie Dixon

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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(mpopchock@kdka.com)

When the Panthers lifted the lid on the 2012-13 men’s basketball season, one piece of coach-speak was conspicuously absent from all mainstream–and even the out-of-mainstream–accounts:

“Thank God.”

You won’t see it or hear it anywhere, not even here, on the flagship. Undoubtedly, however, it’s what Jamie Dixon muttered upon learning that, this time, he got the seven-foot guy who can dunk.

But seriously, folks. This isn’t just about you-know-who…though good luck telling that to the twenty NBA scouts who packed The Pete to see him Tuesday night. This program needs, to borrow one of his own euphemisms, a boot up the bum before it ambles over to the ACC.

An influx of promising, albeit unproven, talent, could help provide that wake-up call. It has already re-energized the fan base. But how far can these Panthers prowl?

These five questions will determine whether or not Pitt men’s basketball bounces back in 2012-13:

1. Will the freshman phenom deliver on his promise?

The only thing center Steven Adams seems to struggle with right now is confidence, which will come organically. Case in point: early in Tuesday’s 78-53 win over Lehigh, perhaps he felt the collective stare of those scouts burning a hole in his uniform, as he didn’t take care of the ball offensively, and he missed a couple chances underneath. As the game went on, he settled down.

Jamie Dixon and the rest of his players will not let this kid fail, and as long this blue-chipper isn’t being pushed off a cliff by hangers-on, we have every reason to believe Adams will elevate the program in the short- and long-term future. It sounds like he is acutely aware of the work ethic Dixon seeks, and he has handled his newfound national attention with the utmost humility.

When Adams met the local media back in January following a special exhibition game with his prep school team, he talked about, as much as anything, wanting to improve his range. Once he adds layers to his game, it’s bad news for the rest of the Big East and ACC.

2. Will the “other” freshman phenom deliver on his promise?

Oh…and we almost forgot…uh, James Robinson is supposed to be pretty good, too.

As wary as I am of reading too much into the minutiae of these early non-conference games (though, to be fair, Lehigh played giant-killer this past March), when Dixon praises the play of Robinson, his novice point guard, against C.J. McCollum, a probable lottery pick this summer, that player has done something right.

It’s hard to inflate the status of one who only hits one field goal in 30 minutes, which was the case Tuesday. However, overshadowed somewhat by the anticipation of Adams is the fact Pitt has an abundance of riches in the backcourt. Defensively, Robinson could make life easier for the Panthers, especially on the perimeter.

He may have a higher ceiling than Ashton Gibbs, with all due respect to the three-time all-conference honoree. He just needs the rest of his offensive game to come around.

3. What can we expect from Tray Woodall?

Once again, first impressions being what they are, his ability to take command of a game will make a world of difference for these Panthers. He finished Tuesday’s game strong, and, coming off an “oh well, I’ll take it” first half, the offense flowed much more smoothly through him for pretty much the entire second half.

He ended that contest with 23 points and eight assists, leading the pack in both categories, and in three victories, the senior guard has averaged a healthy 16.3 points and 6.7 helpers per game. Last season, when he missed two months with a lower-body injury, Pitt went 5-7 in that span. His play early on suggests that wasn’t a coincidence.

4. Has Dante Taylor hit his ceiling yet?

A veteran hockey player was once walking across the University of Minnesota campus, and, upon passing by head coach Herb Brooks, greeted him. Brooks paused for a moment and said, “Oh yeah, you’re on my team, aren’t you?”

One can’t help but wonder if the feeling is mutual between this student body and senior forward Dante Taylor. He has been, without question, the most polarizing (remaining) man in this group, and, to borrow a line from the great Chuck Finder, the McDonald’s All-American hasn’t always delivered a Happy Meal when it comes to shooting the rock.

Having said that, Taylor, believe it or not, led the team in shooting percentage (57.7%) in 2011-12, so the potential does exist for him to conquer that criticism. If this shot-blocking specialist concentrates enough on the rest of his game, he can still play a big role off the bench in helping bring Pitt back to the roots of its success: superior physical play and stifling defense.

5. Can Dixon evolve with his team?

The fact that he’s starting two true freshmen this early in the season is a very good sign. Historically he has been, at times, overly loyal to his seniors. However, we’ll know Jamie Dixon is truly ready to reach the next level when one of his assistants doesn’t have to tap him on the shoulder and remind him that he, too, is allowed to make adjustments.

It’s funny he used the term “hockey assist” in a recent post-game presser because, to me, he’s like the Marc-Andre Fleury of this program; he gets probably too much blame for the lows, and probably not enough credit for the highs. Still, it’s fair to say his recent teams have been lofty on promise, and short on postseason delivery, so, fair or unfair, he’ll be judged going forward on whether his team wins its last game–and I’m not talking about the CBI Final.

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)

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