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Great expectations: TPN looks back on men’s basketball predictions

By Chris Puzia and Dan Sostek / The Pitt News staff

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Although the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament begins Thursday, and the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) have just finished, Pitt’s men’s basketball team is absent from both tournaments.

The Panthers, who lost their first NIT game to George Washington University on March 17, have completed their season with a 19-15 record, including an 8-10 mark in the ACC. Before the season began, the sports editors of The Pitt News predicted how the team would perform and who would step up as a breakout player.

Here are some postseason reflections now that Pitt’s season has ended:

 

Chris Puzia, Sports Editor

Preseason record prediction: 23-9

Breakout player pick: Josh Newkirk

 

Looking back on my breakout pick, this one stings.

While I did think forward Michael Young would take a big step forward in his sophomore year, I had pegged another sophomore to break out for the Panthers: Josh Newkirk.

Instead, the guard turned into one of the bigger disappointments for Pitt, giving wildly inconsistent performances throughout the season. Newkirk only finished with 5.7 points per game and 2.7 assists per game this season, but, watching him play, one would think he finished with even less.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I had picked Newkirk because of the flashes of sheer athleticism and promise he displayed his freshman year, when he would occasionally use his speed and elusiveness to burn past defenders and get to the hoop.

I figured that if head coach Jamie Dixon could develop him into a more complete player and competent defender during the offseason, he would be a solid understudy to junior point guard James Robinson.

Instead, Newkirk showed poor ball control and decision-making skills, largely exemplified in his late-game turnover against Wake Forest on March 1 to seal the loss.

The clear-cut choice for breakout player of the year on Pitt was sophomore forward Jamel Artis and his team-leading 13.8 points per game. His scoring ability was largely the reason Pitt hung on at all, and he is the reason my record prediction was only off by a few games. Without him, I might have looked a lot worse.

Still, I — and most of the Pitt fanbase, most likely — could not have predicted this great of a step backward this year. Despite losing forwards Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna to graduation, Pitt seemingly had plenty of players to fill the void.

My 23-9 guess was a little generous. But with the core group of sophomores gaining another offseason of experience and intriguing incoming guard Damon Wilson joining the mix, I might just find myself making a similar preseason prediction next year.

 

Dan Sostek, Assistant Sports Editor

Preseason record prediction: 22-10

Breakout player: Michael Young

 

Heading into the season, I highlighted some issues that I thought Pitt would face in 2014-2015. The biggest obstacle appeared to be a tough non-conference schedule, with matchups against Florida Gulf Coast, Indiana, San Diego State and Kansas State.

The team went 2-2 in those four contests, but Pitt fans knew it could have been worse. Then the Panthers struggled mightily against some average to below-average teams, such as Hawaii early on in the season, as well as a home loss to Clemson and road losses to the lowly Virginia Tech and Wake Forest teams.

Before the campaign began, I thought that depth would be a strength for the Panthers, but the opposite occurred. The Panthers had no depth in their frontcourt, leading to walk-on Aron Phillips-Nwankwo jumping ahead of scholarship players Derrick Randall and Joseph Uchebo on the depth chart. 

After promising starts to the season, freshmen forwards Ryan Luther and Cameron Johnson struggled to see the court due to inconsistency and injuries, respectively.

But perhaps the most shocking development was the regression of sophomore guard Josh Newkirk. While Newkirk continued to display his physical gifts this season, he struggled with decision-making, turnovers and 3-point shooting. His shortcomings left less depth at the guard position, and Jamie Dixon had to lean heavily on junior guard James Robinson, sophomore guard Chris Jones and senior guard Cam Wright.

There were some shining lights during the bleak season, though. My breakout player pick, sophomore forward Michael Young, showed tremendous improvement, shooting better than 50 percent from the field while averaging nearly 14 points per game. Jamel Artis developed more quickly than anyone expected, becoming the team’s go-to scorer. Sophomore transfer Sheldon Jeter flashed plenty of offensive prowess — when given a chance.

Regardless of this season, the team still has plenty of returning talent, with only Wright, Randall and Phillips-Nwankwo departing. If Newkirk can return to his freshman form, and the team can get some production out of junior forward Durand Johnson, who is returning from a suspension, the Panthers will be in play for another NCAA tournament berth in 2015-2016.

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Great expectations: TPN looks back on men’s basketball predictions