Anson over at Cardiac Hill has pulled my butt out of the fire with Q&As this year. And for that, we thank you.
The Panthers had a strong season last year, but one that ended in the team's first appearance in both the Big East (R.I.P.) and NCAA tournaments. How does your fan base feel about last year's results?
I'd say it was kind of split, as most things generally are. Overall, the regular season was a success by my standard. Off of the team missing the tournament the year before, Pitt went on to a 24-8 regular season despite having a pretty young team, starting two true freshmen and only one senior. Fans have disagreed with the season as a whole, though, because losing in the first round to Wichita State definitely hurt. At 24-9 with three freshmen (James Robinson, Steven Adams, and Durand Johnson) getting significant minutes, it was hard to be too displeased, though. Early NCAA Tournament exits have plagued Pitt in the past, but coming off of a year where they didn't make the tournament for the first time in a decade or whatever it was, a few of us learned to appreciate getting into the Big Dance a little more.
What's the biggest piece you've lost since last season?
Definitely one-and-done Steven Adams, in my opinion. Tray Woodall, a senior guard, was good, but never had the breakout year a lot of us figured he would assuming leadership of the team. He'll be missed but the Adams loss was a far bigger blow. Adams declared after the season (a couple of times, I believe) that he was returning to Pitt for a second year and all along, he said he was going to play four years. But the pressures of having a large family back in New Zealand that weren't well off caught up to him I think. He entered the draft and was taken with the 12th pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder, so it was the right decision on his part.
He had an up and down year for Pitt, but overall, definitely trended upward. He really improved as the season went on and was one of the few players that actually played well in the Wichita State game. Having him back would have likely made Pitt a top 20 team. Without him, though, they're unranked in the preseason.
His loss is really the biggest one because the Panthers are very thin in the frontcourt. The team lost backup center Dante Taylor to graduation as well and Pitt is forced to play true power forwards Talib Zanna and Mike Young at center. Pitt did bring in JUCO center Joseph Uchebo but he's coming off of major knee surgery and no one quite knows when he'll be ready to play. Adams' leaving was understandable when you consider how high he was drafted, but the loss left a gaping hole on Pitt's roster.
Who is the player who needs to step up the most this year?
That would be Talib Zanna, the team's starting center. As I mentioned, he was the starter at power forward last season, but after a strong start in the non-conference portion of the schedule, he kind of fizzled out last year. Along with Lamar Patterson, the senior starter at small forward, the pair are the leaders on the team. Both didn't quite take the steps forward we were hoping for last season, but Pitt needs a little more out of Zanna this season since he's playing at a position where there's really not much depth until Uchebo comes back.
Who is the player UVa fans ought to look out for the most?
It's unclear if Pitt will have a true star on the team this year, but Zanna and Patterson are probably the two guys closest to that. Point guard James Robinson is heady and (and I hate this phrase, so don't judge me) really a great distributor of the basketball. He's not a good shooter as I chronicled a couple of times on our site last year and that's where he needs to improve. But he is a true leader in every sense of the word and should take a step forward this year.
What's your outlook for the season? What's a success, what's a failure, and what's something you can live with?
It's frustrating because this team could have been so much more with Adams coming back, but without him, my expectations are pretty tempered. Pitt is going to be relying on three true freshmen to play significant roles this year in Mike Young, Jamel Artis, and Josh Newkirk. All three are supposed to be pretty good, but a fourth, guard Detrick Mostella, is the potential star of the group and was a top 50 recruit that originally was headed to Oklahoma State until he left and came to Pitt. We're still not real clear on the 'how' and 'why' of that decision, but hey, not going to turn the kid away, either. He is reportedly committed to Pitt but the decision hasn't been officially announced by the school. Nothing has been confirmed yet, but it's been speculated (and I stress the word 'speculated') that he may still be trying to qualify. If he gets here in December in time for the conference season, that could mean Pitt is giving significant minutes to four true freshmen.
Safe to say the team has a lot of young guys playing roles again. I expect them to be pretty good by next season but this year there will again be some growing pains. 20+ wins and another NCAA Tournament trip is the goal for me and something like a Sweet 16 would make it a huge success. With Pitt a perennial tournament team for the most part, not making the NCAAs would be a disappointment.