When is a championship season a disappointing one? When the title you win is the CBI (no disrespect to the good folks who run that tournament), thoughts of the last season have more to do with missing the NCAA tournament.
That’s the situation the Pittsburgh Panthers found themselves in last season, as inexperience and the health of point guard Tray Woodall resulted in a season that didn’t pan out as many expected.
But with Woodall back, the youngsters thrust into key roles last season a year older and some talented newcomers, Pittsburgh is looking to end their stay in the Big East on a high note.
“That’s what our goal always is,” Woodall, who is 100%, said at the team’s media day in regards to winning the Big East.
“I think we’ve got the depth this year where we think we can do it.”
Depth, something the Panthers sorely lacked last season, is something they have despite of the graduation of Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson.
Obviously Woodall is the key, as he missed 11 of the Panthers’ 39 games with a groin strain and an abdominal tear and was a shell of himself when on the floor.
He’ll have a new partner in the back court in Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler, who averaged 15.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last season.
While Zeigler isn’t the three-point shooter that Gibbs was his ability to create off the dribble gives Pitt a dimension at the two they lacked last season, and that was most obvious when Woodall wasn’t on the floor.
Cameron Wright and John Johnson, both of whom were called upon to contribute as freshmen (Wright a redshirt) last season, will factor into the rotation as well.
Jamie Dixon’s squad returns two other starters from last year’s team in Lamar Patterson and Dante Taylor, but the one front court player most want to talk about is freshman Steven Adams.
The New Zealand native cuts a physically imposing figure, standing at 7-0, 250 pounds, and while young he’ll be needed to help improve a team defense that wasn’t near the standard the Panthers had established over the decade prior.
Opponents shot 44.1% from the field last season, a mark that ranked 14th in the Big East. Defending at that level won’t get the job done in 2012-13 and the Panthers know that.
“We’ve got good size,” Dixon noted during media day. “And we’re going to have the versatility to play a couple different ways defensively and do some things that we have in the past.
“We’ve got to be the best defensive team in the conference. That’s what we’ve done when we’ve won conference championships.”
Pitt also returns contributors J.J. Moore and Talib Zanna, while sophomore Malcolm Gilbert will look to work his way into the rotation after playing just 19 games as a freshman.
And if the Panthers need a reminder of what happened last season, there is one:
The Panthers had only a CBI Tournament title to show for last season. A photo of the nearly empty Petersen Events Center at the first-round game against Wofford was hung in the locker room last March with a message to the players, reading, in effect: “This is what happens when you miss the NCAA Tournament.”
With health and depth Pittsburgh can make sure they don’t repeat what happened last season.
Raphielle is also the assistant editor at CollegeHoops.net and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.