November 27, 2011; Pittsburgh,PA, USA: Pittsburgh Panthers guard Tray Woodall (1) handles the ball against the Robert Morris Colonials during the second half at the Petersen Events Center. PITT won 81-71. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

Pittsburgh Panthers Basketball Season Preview

The college hoops season is right around the corner, and Busting Brackets is here to whet your basketball-starved appetite. Over the next five weeks, we are publishing season previews team by team, conference by conference, to offer a glimpse into the upcoming season. Busting Brackets is giving you the lowdown on the biggest storylines, offseason changes and x-factors for each team and each league as we roll into the 2012-13 season. Our complete season preview archive can be accessed here. Buckle up, peeps.

Pittsburgh Panthers

Last Season 22-17 (5-13 Big East)
Lost to Georgetown in second round of Big East tournament
Won CBI Championship
Key Returning Players: Tray Woodall, G
Lamar Patterson, G/F
J.J. Moore, F
Talib Zanna, F
Dante Taylor, F
John Johnson, G
Cameron Wright, G
Key Additions: Trey Zeigler, G (Central Michigan Transfer)
Steven Adams, C (New Zealand / Notre Dame Prep)
James Robinson, G (DeMatha Catholic HS)
Chris Jones, G (Teaneck HS)
Key Losses: Ashton Gibbs, G
Nasir Robinson, F
Khem Birch, F (Transferred to UNLV)
Isaiah Epps, G (Transferred to Monroe Community College)
Top Non-Conference Games: Nov. 12 vs. Fordham (NIT Season Tip-Off)
Nov. 13 vs. Robert Morris or Lehigh (NIT Season Tip-Off)
*Nov. 21 vs. Michigan (NIT Season Tip-Off, MSG)
*Nov. 22 vs. Kansas State or Virginia (MSG)
Dec. 1 vs. Detroit
*Provided all high seeds advance out of preliminary rounds
Top Conference Games: Dec. 31 vs. Cincinnati
Jan. 8 @ Georgetown
Jan. 12 vs. Marquette
Jan. 16 @ Villanova
Jan. 19 vs. Connecticut
Jan. 28 @ Louisville
Feb. 2 vs. Syracuse
Feb. 9 @ Cincinnati
Feb. 16 @ Marquette
Feb. 18 vs. Notre Dame
Mar. 3 vs. Villanova
Breakout Player: Steven Adams. Pittsburgh owns the top Big East-bound transfer (Trey Zeigler) and the league’s top incoming freshman (Steven Adams). Zeigler will be good. Adams has the chance to be great…and right away. The New Zealand product is an athletic big with a solid mid-range game and an improving set of back-to-the-basket moves. Adams is a game-changer on the defensive end—his true calling card—using his size and leverage to block and/or alter shots. He’s a strong finisher inside and picks up a large chunk of his points on second chance put-back opportunities. Adams is creative at finding creases inside and out-maneuvering opposing bigs to win the battle of the boards. Jamie Dixon lost his then-biggest frontcourt recruit midseason last year when Khem Birch opted to transfer to UNLV. Usually a devastating blow for a program coming off a shameful season, the Panthers can afford to shake off the loss of Birch with the luxury of Adams waiting in the wings. Not a bad consolation prize. The addition of Adams should have a ripple effect on the rest of the Pitt frontcourt. Not only is Adams a game-changer by himself, but his presence in the starting lineup alone allows Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna—who were charged with guarding opposing 5’s last season—to slot down to the 4, where both players are better suited. The scariest part about Steven Adams? He plans to stay four years according to his coach (I’ll believe this when I see it). He’s the Big East’s problem this season, but could be the ACC’s for the next three.
X-Factor: Defense. The Panthers are coming off one of the biggest letdown season not just in program history, but in Big East history too. And they had their underachieving D to thank for it. Tabbed as the preseason No. 4 team in conference and even receiving a first place vote from one of the coaches, Pitt fell to the 13th in the league because of their inability to defend at a typically high level. The Panthers were an eyesore with the basketball in their hands too, mind you (for a point of reference, revisit the Rutgers game). Although Pitt ranked 24th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (which accounts for pace), prized senior guard Ashton Gibbs was a huge disappointment, Tray Woodall battled an abdominal tear all season long and once-tabbed ‘point guard of the future’ Isaiah Epps couldn’t get off the bench (he’s since left the program). Still, subpar defense was ultimately Pitt’s undoing. The Panthers ranked 13th in the Big East (151st nationally) in adjusted defensive efficiency, which again takes the pace of the game into account. While Pitt was middle of the pack in terms of points allowed, Dixon’s team played at a snail’s pace, which helped pad the defensive stats. The Panthers actually played better than their 5-13 league record would indicate, as the team owned a relatively marginal point differential in conference play (-2.8 points per game). But defensive lapses, especially inside, negated average performances and turned tight games into tough losses. With Adams inside and Zeigler, a strong on-ball defender, bolstering the backcourt, defense should once again be a strength of Jamie Dixon’s bunch. It will have to be for the Panthers to rediscover their winning ways.
Best Case: Pitt breezes through its cupcake non-conference schedule. With a signature win over Michigan at the NIT Season Tip-Off, the Panthers jump out to a quick start to the season, parlaying that momentum into a strong run in conference play. Steven Adams is the real deal inside, an instant-impact recruit and the most dominant center in the league as a freshman. Adams’s presence is precisely what the doctor ordered for this Pitt team—a strong inside presence, especially on defense, who allows Zanna and Taylor to play their natural 4 on defense. Tray Woodall is healthy and productive. The talented senior point guard shows just what the Panthers missed for a large chunk of last season  (which not coincidentally coincided with Pitt’s slow, 0-7 start in league play): a true floor general who can knock down the 3 and play above-average on-ball defense. Zeigler starts from day one and is an immediate difference maker, stabilizing Pitt’s perimeter defense and adding another tough rebounder (Zeigler is one of the best rebounding guards in America) to a team that perennially dominates the glass. Though overshadowed by Adams’s emergence, Lamar Patterson’s breakout junior season is no less important. The versatile, smooth-shooting swingman blossoms into one of the best all-around backcourt players in the league. A deadeye shooter, Patterson is a strong rebounder for his position (when paired with Zeigler, the Panthers have the best rebounding backcourt in the league) and an underrated distributor. J.J. Moore is another capable offensive threat, and more consistency from the perimeter makes him a more impactful player in 2012-13. Dante Taylor finally finds his mojo in his senior season, showing why he was considered a can’t-miss, blue-chip prospect coming out of high school. This is Jamie Dixon’s most balanced team to date. This year’s squad proves as rewarding as last year’s team was disappointing. Pitt takes the league by storm—catching opposing fans and teams with images of last season still at the forefront of their minds off-guard—and finishes in the top three of the league. After running the table in the light non-conference schedule, Pitt pins down a top-three seed in the NCAA tournament.
Worst Case: Adams shows promise, but his post game is still raw and he’s not the refined blue-chip prospect most scouts and recruiting experts believe him to be. Zeigler is a good defensive player and a boon on the boards, but his offensive game is still lacking. He still can’t shoot, his offensive repertoire is thin and the uptick in competition brings his production down a notch. Woodall is healthy, but suffers from a similar senior swoon that plagued departing senior guard Ashton Gibbs. Often ignored in the offense because of the additions of Zeigler and Adams, Patterson has a quiet, cold-shooting season. Taylor continues to underwhelm, and despite his high efficiency (he scores mostly on dunks and easy buckets), is hardly the impact player he was billed as in high school. Taylor’s disappointing sendoff season corresponds to another disappointing season in Pitt. The Panthers pick up from where they left off last year, as the defense remains inconsistent despite Adams’s presence and the absence of Nasir Robinson, the heart and soul of last year’s team, is heartfelt. Dixon’s team falls to .500 in Big East play, and because of a weak non-conference slate, finds itself squarely on the bubble come Selection Sunday. After a second consecutive substandard season, the once thought to be untouchable and prodigious Dixon works his way onto the hot seat.
Projected Finish: Regular Season: 23-8 (11-7 Big East), 5th place Big East
Lose in Big East quarterfinals
NCAA tournament No. 6 seed

Tags: Basketball Pittsburgh Panthers

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