Basketball: Panthers hitting new low

By Kelly Flanigan

Don’t expect to see the Pitt men’s basketball team in the NCAA Tournament this season,… Don’t expect to see the Pitt men’s basketball team in the NCAA Tournament this season, regardless of what head coach Jamie Dixon says.

The Panthers’ loss to Louisville was their eighth straight, bringing their Big East record to a miserable 0-7. After each of these losses, we’ve heard Dixon foreshadow improvement.

“We have work to do.” “We’re going to practice hard this week.” “We need to continue working on that.”

And, if you’re like me, you’ve believed him. I’ve also heard him say he’s not going to make excuses. He hasn’t. That’s something you’ve got to admire.

Let me make one thing clear: The problem with this year’s Pitt basketball team isn’t Jamie Dixon. He’s the same coach who led previous Pitt teams to the Big Dance, the same coach who coached Sam Young and DeJuan Blair to the NBA and the same coach who’s built the Petersen Events Center and the Panther home-court advantage into what it is today.

The problem is with the team. The players aren’t just below average. The players aren’t just underachieving. They’re last. The worst. They are having a historic season in the losing category.

Has Dixon made some fundamental mistakes over the course of game action this year? Sure, but look at what he has had to deal with. Khem Birch, our “promising” freshman, transferred to UNLV. Travon Woodall, our starting point guard, who brings so many intangible skills to the game, went down with an injury.

The starting lineup has been changed and tweaked several times, and this is the biggest part of the problem. Pitt has yet to find a solid set of five guys who simultaneously work well together on the court and satisfy the requirements of each position to be competitive within the conference. at the beginning of the season, I wrote an article valuing the depth of the Pitt bench. Dixon was utilizing a nine-man rotation at the time, and I thought this was a good thing.

More players mean more rest for the starters and valuable contributions from the bench, right? Wrong. The first problem Pitt needs to address if it wants to compete for the rest of the season is trying to find a consistent five-man starting lineup. It needs to be the same guys each game, and they need to pepper in a few reserves when that group needs rest.

The second problem: Inexperience. When Woodall was out with injury, freshman guard John Johnson took over. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Flipp, but experience can’t be replaced by 3-point shooting and good ball handling — two things Johnson definitely has.

Redshirt freshman Isaiah Epps has little game experience, but found himself on the floor against DePaul when he shouldn’t have been. A situation like this can be modeled in practice, but when it comes to game time things are very different, and Pitt lost that game because of Epps’ inexperience.

The third and arguably the biggest problem for Pitt has been the team’s inconsistency. Jamie Dixon’s team is known for mastering the fundamentals of the game of basketball: defense, rebounds and free-throw shooting. These are the staple ingredients for winning in the Big East — the most physical conference around.

But Notre Dame lit it up from behind the 3-point line in the second half against Pitt, shooting nearly 63 percent. Louisville shot 70 percent in the second half against Pitt. Last season, teams only managed to shoot 39 percent from the field against the Panthers’ stifling defense.

Rebounding has always been one of the Panthers’ strong suits. Even in games when Pitt significantly out-rebounds its opponent — against No. 1 Syracuse, the Panthers won the rebound battle 38-24 — it has not been enough to propel the team to victory. Points need to be put up in other categories of play, like offensive production.

At times, the offense has stagnated this season. The inconsistency of Ashton Gibbs as a shooter has hurt the team dramatically. Gibbs scored a career-high 29 points against Marquette, then had 10 against Syracuse and 14 against Louisville. ranted, Gibbs has missed Woodall — who averages eight assists a game — to find him for the open shots, but his shooting percentage in recent games has been dismal.

Talib Zanna will have a good game one night. Dante Taylor will show promising spurts of play the next. J.J. Moore will throw down a thunderous dunk and make a 3-pointer early in the first half and disappear for the rest of the game. But these spotty performances do not help. What Pitt needs is 40 solid minutes of production out of somebody.

Bottom line: The Panthers need a go-to player. At the beginning of the season, I would have said that player was Gibbs. Now, I’m not so sure.

In the game against Louisville, Pitt did not get to the foul line in the first half — a missed opportunity for easy points. In the second half of the same game, Pitt shot 16 percent from the free-throw line, sinking only one out ofsix shots during the entire contest.

The Panthers even battled then-No. 1 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome for most of the game last week. They lost by eight points. How many free throws did they miss? Eleven.

Despite the team’s many difficulties, they have been playing better. This is undoubtedly the most frustrating thing as a fan­ — seeing improvement without wins. What is the one element that will push the team to victory? When will come the day that Pitt plays just that much better than its opponent to get a Big East win?

Maybe it will be the game against Providence on Wednesday night that will snap the team’s four-game home losing streak. But I am not going to hold my breath.