Dixon, Pitt basketball need to up recruiting game to compete in ACC


Jamie Dixon and the Panthers need to improve in recruiting to succeed in the ACC. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

There was a time when Pitt basketball could compile northeastern-focused recruiting classes. Unfortunately for Jamie Dixon and the Panthers, that time has passed.

For the majority of Dixon’s tenure as Pitt’s head basketball coach, becoming a regular season force and faltering in the postseason was the standard. The consensus was after a few seasons of this particular heartbreak, eventually, Dixon would break through and make a final four. He was too good of a coach not to.

The last four years, Pitt basketball has flouted those expectations, missing the tournament twice and flaking out early after good — but not great — regular seasons.

Based on recent recruiting, this trend might become the norm.

Recruiting has never been Dixon’s strength. No one in the Pitt community expected him to attract blue chip recruits and snag them from the grasps of Duke or Kentucky. Dixon, instead, has largely built his program on overlooked recruits with chips on their shoulders, who could steadily develop over four or five years.

In his prime years, Dixon constructed Big East Conference-contending teams with these players — many hailing from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia.

The allure of Pitt for these recruits made sense. As part of the illustrious Big East, they would always claim the spotlight. They’d get to play against teams that were nearby their hometowns or that they grew up watching. And they’d have the opportunity to play at the famed Madison Square Garden during the Big East Tournament.

When Pitt joined the ACC in 2013, though, it lost those selling points.

Playing against St. John’s University in a conference that Pitt helped build up was a major draw for the local New York-based players Dixon was recruiting. Playing in Virginia or North Carolina in a conference Pitt has no history in? Not so much.

With the change in conference, recruiting strategy needed to evolve. Pitt couldn’t focus its recruiting in Big East areas anymore, but instead, it needed to redirect attention to Virginia, North Carolina and other ACC recruiting grounds.

Pitt hasn’t successfully planted any seeds in its new conference’s territory, though.

Its top assistant, Brandin Knight, has connections in New York and New Jersey. Unsurprisingly, he’s only pulled one recruit from the area since joining the ACC ­­— 2015 guard Damon Wilson from New York. He recruited Michael Young, who played in New Jersey but whose roots are in western Pennsylvania.

After Knight, Marlon Williamson serves as Pitt’s second assistant, who Dixon hired in June of 2014. His connections are in Detroit and Chicago, where few schools outside of the area have success recruiting — this difficulty hits harder for a school like Pitt, which only has minimal reach.

Bill Barton, the third assistant, recruits the New England area, where Pitt has never had much success, because of its location.

And Dixon? He’s the head coach, so most would expect him to be the closer, but he’s from California and went to school in Texas — places where Pitt has no semblance of reach or geographical connection.

That’s not exactly a winning formula, and Pitt has had to pay.

In 2014, Pitt attracted commitments from Ryan Luther and Cameron Johnson — two local, lowly-recruited developmental prospects — Tyrone Haughton — a raw junior college player, who’s since transferred — and Sheldon Jeter — a solid transfer from Vanderbilt.

In its last class, Pitt got Wilson, a nice four-star-type prospect, and Rozelle Nix, another developmental junior college prospect. Missing out on coveted prospects such as Cheick Diallo and Marcus LoVett, forced Dixon to fill out the class with three graduate transfers.

Those are two mediocre recruiting classes, certainly not fitting for a conference-competing team, but not horrible showings. The 2016 class looks like it could be the nail in the coffin for Pitt’s championship hopes in the near future.

More than likely, Dixon will need to bring in five or six players in to the 2016 class — nearly half of Pitt’s 13 allotted scholarships. So far, he only has two, and he has until May 18, 2016, to fill the remaining slots.

Corey Manigault and Justice Kithcart, a forward and guard, respectively, from Virginia are nice starts to the class. They’re both high three-star- or low four-star-type recruits. Williamson was able to get Manigault through past connections while at Massachusetts, while Pitt was one of Kithcart’s best offers.

There are scarce options left on Pitt’s board, though. Players like Temple Gibbs, Cassius Winston, Myles Powell and Lamar Stevens were top targets, but unlikely due to their locations in New Jersey, Detroit and Philadelphia.

These aren’t areas where Pitt can have much success recruiting anymore, so it makes little sense to focus so much attention there. The focus needs to be in ACC territory, an area where Pitt’s only players have come in this class.

Still, inefficient recruiting in the area will leave Pitt picking up the scraps left by its ACC foes. Dixon’s a great coach, but Pitt can’t compete for a championship without the requisite talent. Unless Dixon and his coaching staff can break new ground south of the Mason-Dixon line, Pitt will continue to spiral toward the unremarkable. Pitt’s in the ACC, so it’s time to adapt and start recruiting like it.