Robinson brings gold-medal experience to Pitt


The first few weeks of July have been busy for the Pitt men’s basketball team. July 1 saw the official entrance of the team to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The next day, July 2, Pitt received a commitment from 2013 four-star shooting guard Detrick Mostella. 

One week later, sophomore point guard James Robinson became the first Panther to win two gold medals playing basketball against international competition. With Team USA’s 82-68 victory over Serbia in the FIBA Under-19 World Championship game on July 9, Robinson won his second gold medal.. 

“It’s a real honor to be able to say that. I think my time at Pitt has really prepared me to accomplish that, just being with my teammates feeding off them and their work ethic,” Robinson said. “And then learning from our coaching staff here and being able to apply that to the international game and implement that in the game and the concepts brought about by Billy Donovan and the rest of the coaching staff.”

While Robinson ended up playing for the team, he was left off the U19 roster originally, even though he played for the under-18 team that won a gold medal in Brazil last summer. He was a close call that year as well. 

“We weren’t sure we were going to keep him. We cut the team from 25 to 14 and then kept guys around to 12. He was originally on the outside looking in,” head coach Billy Donovan said last year. “But once we started practicing we saw that he’s a winner and a great role guy.”

In 2013, Robinson was one of the last players to be cut. 

“Billy [Donovan] has made it clear,” assistant coach Shaka Smart said in an interview with ESPN’s Andy Katz. “Everyone is trying out this year. We will pick the guys that comprise the best team.”

But when Robinson later found out that he was chosen for the squad, the turnaround between his return to Pitt and his departure to join the U19 team was quick. 

“Originally I was not part of the 12-man roster, so I flew back to campus and was getting ready to start classes and already worked out with the team here, but I got a call that Jerami Grant got ill,” Robinson said. “So that same day I flew back home, got my passport, and the following day I flew overseas.”

Grant was unable to play because he was diagnosed with mononucleosis, which resulted in Robinson replacing a lifelong friend and former teammate at DeMatha Catholic High School. 

“I’ve known Jerami since first grade, so it’s kind of ironic that I had to replace him,” Robinson said. “He was upbeat, he did everything with the team, he just didn’t play.”

As for those who did play, they were guided by some of the nation’s top coaching talent: Florida’s Billy Donovan, Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart and Virginia’s Tony Bennett. Donovan owns two NCAA championships, Smart guided VCU to a Final Four berth in 2011 and Bennett enters his fifth season at Virginia with a .589 winning percentage.

“All three are very intense coaches, they run terrific college programs. The job they did with us to really teach us on the fly, it was a terrific job by them,” Robinson said. “I think they deserve all the credit. We obviously went out there and played hard, but they prepared us each and every day.” 

That preparation resulted in a perfect 9-0 run at the event by Team USA, as the Americans beat their opposition by an average of 39.6 points. One such blowout included a 68-point demolition of the Russian representation. 

“It was a great experience. All 16 teams at the event had talent, they were well-prepared to compete,” Robinson said. “It’s definitely a different style over there, it’s a lot more physical than people may think, 24-second shot clock, so possessions are faster, a lot of transition game, a lot of screen-and-roll stuff, so it definitely had a college feel to it.”

Playing a higher level of competition is something Robinson and the rest of the Panthers will become accustomed to with the transition from the Big East to the ACC. 

“We know we have our hands full going into the ACC with those higher teams, and UVA’s going to be up there. It’s going to be a lot of fun moving to the ACC, and I think just bringing a little bit of leadership and consistency to the game is going to be needed.”

Leadership in the Pitt backcourt will undoubtedly be a storyline in the early goings of the season as a result of the departure of Travon Woodall because of graduation. Woodall led the team in scoring at 11.5 points per game and also handed out 5.1 assists per game. 

“I got lucky last year having Tray in the backcourt with me, and he taught me just everything, all the nuances of the college game,” Robinson said. “It was so beneficial to have him in my corner last year, and with him gone I have to try to have a career hopefully as good as he had.”

While Robinson was the primary ball handler last season and Woodall played off the ball, Robinson will run Pitt’s offense this season as point guard. The promotion will likely see an improvement over his freshman numbers of 6.1 points and 3.5 assists per game. 

A fantastic early sign of Robinson’s ability to keep Pitt’s offense moving, though, was his assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.83:1, which placed him ninth among all Division I basketball players and represented the best mark of any freshman.

“I’ve been trying to work on my total package, my entire game,” Robinson said. “I think this year’s going to be a collective effort across the board. We have a lot of new guys coming in that are very skilled, and it’s going to be a team effort to get the wins.”