The Pittsburgh Panthers had one of their best regular seasons ever, but fell apart in the post season. What changes will the Panthers make to help this team reach the ultimate goal of winning a National Championship.

A 27-4 regular season earned the Pittsburgh Panthers the top seed in the Big East Tournament as well as a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. In a nightmare postseason, the Panthers dropped their first Big East tourney game to the peaking UConn Huskies, handily defeated UNC-Asheville in the second round of the Big Dance, and then dropped a bizarre decision to the Butler Bulldogs. The

1-2 postseason record tarnished many of the positives of the regular season.

Will Jamie Dixon’s crew bounce back in 2011-12? 

Backcourt 

Ashton GibbsPittsburgh received excellent news when guard Ashton Gibbs (16.8 ppg) opted out of the NBA Draft in order to return for his senior season. Gibbs can score from all over the court and actually has a higher three-point percentage (49%) than overall shooting percentage (47%). The Panthers have a go-to scorer in Gibbs, something they will need considering their substantial interior losses. 

Pittsburgh loses defensive stopper Brad Wannamaker (11.7 ppg) at the point, but the Panthers have a lot of faith in rising junior Travon Woodall (6.4 ppg, 3.4 ppg) to run the offense. Many observers feel that he is better with the basketball than his predecessor. It will be more important, however, for him to replace Wannamaker’s defensive intensity. 

Redshirt freshman Cameron Wright should join the rotation at guard. Wright is known as a streaky shooter who excels in the open court, on the boards, and on defense. He should fit into Dixon’s style quite well. 

Recruits Durand Johnson (Brewster Academy, NH) and John Johnson (Life Center Academy,  PA) may provide depth at guard, unless one or both redshirt. Durand Johnson fits the Pitt mold perfectly with his defense and athleticism, while John Johnson seems to be more of a work-in-progress. He could be the answer at the point after Woodall. 

Frontcourt 

Pitt will miss seniors Gilbert Brown (11.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Gary McGhee (6.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg). Their leadership and defensive ability were as important as their statistics. J.J. Richardson was expected to take McGhee’s spot in the middle, but he chose to transfer in mid-April 

Nasir Robinson (9.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg) will be the only returning big man with significant experience. Robinson needs to be successful early in the season, as it was his foul on Butler’s Matt Howard that directly resulted in Pitt’s early exit from the NCAA Tournament. He will have to deal with questions about that play for the rest of his career. 

Junior Dante Taylor (5.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and sophomores J. J. Moore (3.7 ppg) and Talib Zanna (3.7 ppg) played minor roles during the 2010-11 season. All three will need significant growth in their games to replace the production that Pitt is losing in the middle. 

Fortunately for the Panthers, Dixon did very well with big men on the recruiting trail. Khem Birch (Notre Dame Prep, MA) was a McDonald’s All-American and the top-ranked center in the country according to ESPU. Birch is explosive on the interior, has a nice mid-range jump shot, and possesses fantastic defensive and rebounding skills. He should be an immediate contributor for Pitt. 

Dixon also signed ESPU 100 center Malcolm Gilbert (Academy of the New Church, PA). Gilbert is a 6’11” defensive stopper and shot-blocker, very much in the mold of McGhee. His offensive game needs some work, but he will provide Pitt with a nice presence in the paint in 2011-12.

Outlook 

Dixon coaches a winning style of basketball (at least during the regular season), and I would expect that to continue next season. With Gibbs leading the way on offense, a very talented backcourt, and a mixture of youth and experience in the middle, the Panthers should challenge for another Big East title.

I do think, however, the team will take a slight step back next season due to the tremendous losses the Panthers suffered when their seniors graduated. The team is simply a bit too young and inexperienced in the middle. An excellent recruiting class bodes well for the future, but dont be fooled by the NCAA basketball odds, this not be a Final Four year for Pitt.