It almost feels like with Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Louisville joining the Atlantic Coast Conference next year, the Pittsburgh Panthers are kind of flying under the radar as another traditionally good program starting fresh after fleeing the Big East.
There are a few reasons for this, most notably the fact that Syracuse and Louisville both reached the Final Four last season and Notre Dame brings a certain cache based on name alone. Pitt, on the other hand, has to be pretty used to being somewhat ignored. It’s got nothing to do with the production on the court, of course. After all, the Panthers have averaged 26 wins per season under head coach Jamie Dixon, and even reached the top spot in the polls in the 2008-09 season.
So why do people tend to look past Pitt year after year? Quite simply, it’s because of the way they play and the fact that they are so successful without any real superstars on a year to year basis.
They always put a strong, well-coached team on the floor, but try to think of the last genuine star and you may struggle, particularly considering DeJuan Blair has been pretty much the most high-profile player to come out of Pitt in the past decade, and he’s been nothing more than an undersized journeyman post player in the NBA. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and he’s had a respectable several seasons as a pro.
True, the Panthers had a high draft pick last season in Steven Adams, but he played just one season and was a bit of a disappointment considering his hype heading into his freshman year. Still, even without a roster full of superstars, the Panthers manage to win year in and year out, always a lock to get 20 or more victories and a top -25 ranking, and typically flaming out in the NCAA Tournament.
In the team’s first season as a member of the ACC, expect much of the same. The Panthers play such a gritty, physical style that ACC teams who haven’t regularly faced them are in for a bit of a shock.
To put it another way, this will be similar to a football team that runs a Wing-T offense matching up with a group of schools that all run the spread. The Panthers are as much of a smash-mouth basketball team as you’ll find, and their ability to impose their will is going to make or break how well they perform, and whether they can contend for a conference title this season.
Leading the way will be 6-foot-3 point guard James Robinson, who takes control of the team with the graduation of Tray Woodall along with fifth-year senior Lamar Patterson, a 6-foot-5 bull of a swingman whose ability to develop more of an outside game will be one of the keys to the season.
How well ACC opponents are able to adapt to the tough, aggressive style of play that the Panthers employ is going to go a long way toward determining just where Pitt winds up in the conference standings at the end of the season.