The 2019-20 season gets closer every day. In this column, our sports staff salutes the departed women’s tennis program, guesses at the effect that an NCAA rule change will have on Panther basketball and looks at the future of a former Pitt running back.
The Pittsburgh Panthers finished the 2018-19 men’s basketball season with a subpar record (14-19 overall, 3-15 ACC) that saw them finish 14th in the ACC. Despite the disappointment, it was an improvement from the horrendous 2017-18 season where the Panthers were 0-18 in ACC play.
Pitt is heading in the right direction under head coach Jeff Capel. The squad showed signs of greatness during Capel’s first full season, and next season will prove that these signs were no fluke.
Pittsburgh will be a competitive team and will be on the bubble to make the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (March Madness) throughout the entire season. Unfortunately, their efforts to make “the dance” will be thwarted by teams that have more experience than the Panthers.
Pitt will have a win-loss record of 7-9 ACC games. This would more than double its win total in conference play over the past two seasons combined. Alas, Pitt would be one of the first four teams left out of the tournament.
However, the Panthers would own a No. 1 seed in the NIT tournament due to being left out of March Madness. This also means that Pitt would have home court advantage until the final four teams of the tournament.
Making the NIT tournament just two years after the 0-18 season would be a miracle to Pitt fans. For Capel to turn the program around so quickly would prove how great of a leader he is. So don’t be surprised when Pitt is playing for an NIT championship, or better yet, “dancing” come March.
— Tyler Moran, Staff Writer
Rule change could bode well for Pitt basketball
The NCAA announced on June 12 that it would be pushing back the 3-point line in men’s basketball to 22 feet, 1.75 inches, which is the distance used for international competition. This is more than a foot back from the 20 feet and 9 inches where the line used to reside, but is still not quite as deep as the NBA three-point line.
While Pitt was not a particularly overpowering team from 3-point range last season, shooting just a hair above 33%, it was still a key part of its game plan due to its lack of size. Without a large number of big man recruits for this coming season, that part of the game plan likely will not change much in 2019-20. However, thanks to the recruitment of junior college transfer Ryan Murphy and incoming freshman guard Justin Champagnie, the Panthers are looking to shoot a much higher percentage from the outside this season.
With the deeper 3-point line, makes from deep will likely be harder to come by in college basketball, but that is a good thing for Pitt. If it can secure an edge on opponents in terms of 3-point shooting, it will be able to outweigh the lack of a dominant physical presence it possesss on the inside.
— Andrew Kelly, Staff Writer
Pitt offense looks to be more efficient
One of the most important parts of being successful in football is having an efficient offense that can move the ball in the run game and also by passing. Last year, the Panthers struggled to be consistent doing either, leading to many unnecessary, headache-inducing losses.
The change came with offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, being fired and replaced by Mark Whipple. Whipple comes with almost four decades of experience coaching football, especially on the offensive side of the ball. These coaching stints include being the quarterback coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2004-06, where he won a Super Bowl ring, and the same position with the Cleveland Browns in 2011-12.
He was also the head coach at UMass twice, first from 1998-03 when he was able to bring a national championship to the program when they were in Division 1-AA, and from 2014-18 as the team was top 20 in passing in three of those seasons, but were not successful winning games.
The change from Watson, who in his last three games had the team post offensive totals of three, 10 and 13 points respectively, to Whipple should be a huge change to a team that is in desperate need for offensive production next season as it looks to defend its ACC Coastal Division title.
Many players have already stated how much better the change to Whipple has been during spring practices and if the change is successful, Pitt could look to improve vastly on what was a successful season a year ago.
— Dominic Campbell, Staff Writer
Discontinuing Pitt women’s tennis a swing and a miss
This past January marked a new low for Pitt’s women’s tennis team when Athletic Director Heather Lyke announced on social media that this season would be its last.
Lyke’s decision marks the first time since the women’s tennis team’s inception in 1975 that Pitt will be without a tennis program, leaving a gaping hole in the University’s athletic scene. Pitt also cut the underperforming men’s tennis team back in 1995, and, in recent years, the women haven’t fared any better.
The program’s woes began five years ago, when Pitt switched from the Big East Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which currently holds three of the sport’s top 10 teams. The uptick in competition was undeniable — Pitt’s record crashed from 19-23 in its last five years of Eastern Conference play to a combined 1-69 in its five-year ACC debut.
The team has yet to win a league match this season, but it’s a season — and a program — that was doomed from the start. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in January that “continuing this program undermines our commitment to future student athletes.” But Pitt was the only team in its conference that didn’t have an on-campus tennis facility, so players had to make the trek to Wexford just to practice everyday. And to make matters worse, funding for the team was quite slim — women’s tennis was one of 19 sports at Pitt, but received only 2.3% of the athletic department’s funding.
Instead of cushioning the team’s adjustment to the ACC with better funding, more coaching and, perhaps, more local facilities, the athletic department threw their players racquet-first into a division where they obviously couldn’t compete. The result? Pitt’s players were left scrambling to figure out their next moves — both on the tennis court and in their University lives. And Pitt tennis fans were robbed of the chance to watch hometown heroes trade shots with some of the best players from across the country.
— Neena Hagen, Senior Staff Writer
Heat is on Ollison in Atlanta
The summer months between the end of the NFL Draft and the beginning of the preseason is the roughest stretch of the year for football fans. Aside from a few sporadic rumors concerning roster developments during training camp, this time is a desert wasteland for meaningful NFL news.
But while NFL veterans saunter through organized team activities and NFL fans wallow through the summer heat, this time is highly valuable for one particular demographic — NFL rookies, especially late-round picks and undrafted free agents.
For rookie running back Qadree Ollison, selected in the fifth round by the Atlanta Falcons, the stakes will be higher than ever during training camp and the preseason. At Pitt, Ollison racked up 2,859 career rushing yards, putting him seventh on the Panthers’ all-time list — a prestigious group, including names like Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin and Lesean McCoy. He was also Pitt’s only player taken in the 2019 draft, adding even more pressure to succeed at the next level.
The path to a backfield role is certainly there after the departure of Atlanta change-of-pace back Tevin Coleman, but it’s imperative that Ollison make a good impression on the Falcons’ coaching staff during training camp and the preseason. If not, it’s possible that he may find himself on the outside looking in on a committee backfield that includes Ito Smith and Kenjon Barner as a supporting cast for incumbent workhorse Devonta Freeman.
In a best-case scenario, Ollison earns the trust of Atlanta’s coaching staff throughout the summer, then makes the most of his carries in the preseason, similar to how former Pitt running back James Conner, a third-round pick in 2017, muscled his way into a backup role with the Steelers by impressing in the preseason. It may be a small storyline in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a situation that Pitt fans will want to keep a close eye on throughout an otherwise uneventful summer.
— Trent Leonard, Contributing Editor