Perhaps Pittsburgh's long national nightmare -- and by nightmare, I mean a "one-year break from an otherwise consistently successful program" -- is over.
Indeed, the Panthers got good news this past weekend, when the NCAA announced that it was going to allow guard Trey Zeigler, who played the first two years of his career under his father Ernie Zeigler at Central Michigan, to play immediately at Pittsburgh next season.
This is slightly surprising news, given that Zeigler's transfer was not the result of a family illness or graduate exemption, but rather the result of his father's firing in March. Which is not the same as saying Zeigler shouldn't be allowed to play immediately. Let's be real: Zeigler's odds of attending Central Michigan (and turning down Michigan State, Michigan, UCLA and Arizona State) as a top-35 recruit in the class of 2010 were almost nil; he didn't commit to the school so much as to his father, and few would dispute that. All in all, it seems like a pretty fair decision. It's just unique, is all.
But whatever the reasoning behind it, the news is entirely welcome news for Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, who will now reload his backcourt immediately after a disappointing 2012 season and the loss of senior guard and longtime scoring leader Ashton Gibbs. Dixon can slot Zeigler, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, in the backcourt alongside point guard Tray Woodall, who missed much of 2012 due to injury but consistently improved his play as he became full strength later in the season. Meanwhile, freshman point guard James Robinson -- the No. 4-ranked player at the position in the class of 2012 -- should provide a solid third option at point guard.
Pitt's backcourt will need to take on the lion's share of scoring production at the very least, because the frontcourt may still be a year or two away. Much of that will depend on New Zealand-born freshman center Steven Adams, the No. 4-ranked center, and No. 6-ranked overall player, in the incoming class. Adams will be charged with replacing Nasir Robinson, who himself was replacing a senior-laden 2011 group, alongside forwards Dante Taylor (whose 16.3 offensive rebounding rate in 2011 portends big things in bigger minutes) and Talib Zanna (who likewise posted a 14.2 rebounding rate in 2011, and whose name always reminds me of this character from "Mass Effect").
If Adams and a new-look Pitt frontcourt can excel immediately, then Pittsburgh's goal of returning to the NCAA tournament should be little more than a boring expectation. If all goes well, the ceiling should be much higher; this team could compete with Louisville and Syracuse at the top of the Big East. And it will be fascinating to see Zeigler -- a talented player asked to do everything for a team that ranked No. 270 in KenPom at the end of 2012 -- competing in a big-time conference with talented players around him. That alone could improve his play considerably.
At the very least, Dixon has his backcourt back in fighting shape. It took a slightly unusual NCAA decision to make it happen, but the end result is the first truly great news Pitt fans have heard in a year.