Jamie Dixon looks to rebuild at Pitt next year after regular season disappointment and CBI title. (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times)
Our Big East recap rolls on with a trip to the Steel City to chronicle the 2011-12 season that started and ended strong despite a rough patch in the middle.
The city of Pittsburgh has been known for its rich championship tradition over the years. Be it the Steelers, Penguins or Pirates, fans in the blue-collar city have grown accustomed to one of their own reaching the summit of their respective sport. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before the Panthers did the same at the collegiate level. However, if you surveyed Pitt fans at the beginning of the season, hardly anyone would have suspected that Jamie Dixon's team would add to the championship heritage with a crown in the CBI.
Yet that was what happened after the Panthers struggled through a 5-13 Big East slate that started in the midst of an eight-game losing streak. Somehow or another, Pitt was not the same team that had been the class of the conference in years past, as evidenced by rare nonconference losses to Long Beach State and Wagner. On top of that, the Panthers' longtime homecourt dominance took a hit as well in their seven losses at the Petersen Center, which saw more than its share of empty seats for the first time since its 2002 inception.
Despite the 22-17 record that Pitt fans will consider a letdown, Ashton Gibbs was at his usual best throughout his final season in a Panther uniform. The senior from New Jersey was the leading scorer and free throw shooter for Jamie Dixon, averaging nearly fifteen points per game and shooting 86 percent at the line. Besides Gibbs, point guard Tray Woodall (nearly 12 points and over six assists even after missing eleven games due to injury) and forward Nasir Robinson (a team-leading 6.5 rebounds per game) made the motor run as well. Swingman Lamar Patterson had a breakout sophomore campaign as well, shooting 41 percent from three-point range in his first season as a full-time starter. Swingman J.J. Moore and freshman guard John Johnson combined to give the Panthers two more shooting options over the course of the season, and sophomore Talib Zanna joined Dante Taylor to form a potent one-two punch inside after Khem Birch left the program after one month in favor of UNLV.
Pittsburgh gets even more help for what should be a road to redemption with their two incoming freshmen. James Robinson is a 6-3 point guard who should be able to step in and replace Woodall when he is ready, which should not be much longer. The DeMatha Catholic product turned down offers from fellow Big East schools Georgetown, Notre Dame and Marquette to play for Dixon, and is ranked 58th in the nation by Rivals.com. Robinson's future teammate is even more highly regarded, and that is 6-10 forward Steven Adams out of Notre Dame Prep in Massachusetts. Ranked as the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2012 class, Adams is a New Zealand transplant who is a true big man in the mold of former Panther stars Chris Taft and Aaron Gray, and should immediately make a difference in the Big East despite his lack of collegiate experience. For what it's worth, Adams did manage 23 points and 13 rebounds in January against highly touted center Nerlens Noel; who may very well be a 2012 commit in his own right, considering Kentucky, Syracuse and Georgetown.
Pittsburgh took a major step back last season, but the whole team is back aside from Gibbs and Nasir Robinson. With the arrival of James Robinson and Steven Adams, the road to redemption for Jamie Dixon and the Panthers is a lot smoother as they embark on what could be their final season in the Big East before heading to the ACC.