Transitions are never easy, and when Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh made the jump to the ACC, Pitt’s figured to be the trickiest. Syracuse, with its central New York outpost, had geographical challenges; Louisville, a hard-scrabble city school, institutional ones. Pitt had both, not to mention an old-school, blue-collar style that epitomized the Big East but not so much the ACC.
All of those challenges and issues, alas, have been borne out.
It’s not that the Panthers have been bad -- 45-25 overall, 19-17 in league. Their record is more than adequate. It’s just that they’ve been a nonfactor. Pitt made a first-weekend exit from the NCAA tournament two seasons ago and a first-night departure from the NIT this year, leaving a wispy trail of nothing in its wake.
And as they prep for Year 3, things don’t look any less complicated for the Panthers. Coach Jamie Dixon knew he’d be without playmaker Cameron Wright, who graduated. What he didn’t plan for was losing Durand Johnson and Tyrone Houghton.
Both announced this month that they would transfer.
Johnson is the biggest body blow. Suspended for all of last season for an undisclosed NCAA violation, the guard figured to be an integral part of the Panthers’ plan next season, but the senior announced last week he would be leaving. He averaged 8.8 points as a sophomore before tearing his ACL.
That leaves Dixon with nine scholarship players, two incoming recruits, two spots left to fill and an identity to re-create.
What the immediate future holds: TBD is probably the best answer. With five guys who played significant minutes returning -- including top two scorers Jamel Artis and Michael Young -- Dixon has plenty to build on. The question is where will he find the other blocks.
Dixon, like a lot of coaches, is working the graduate transfer avenue, hard. He tried to land Charlotte graduate transfer Mike Thorne, but he opted for Illinois. Brown graduate transfer Rafael Maia still has Pitt on his short list, but also is considering Boston College and Rice. Similarly, the Panthers have their eye on Mercer transfer Ike Nwamu and Sterling Smith, a transfer out of Coppin State. Both would be immediately eligible.
That seems to be the party line right now for the Panthers -- in the mix, but not yet the final choice. Cheick Diallo is the biggest prize on the Panthers’ wish list. The big man, ranked No. 11 in the ESPN 100, just added an MVP trophy from the Jordan Brand game to the one he scored earlier from the McDonald’s All-American Game.
Pitt remains on his list, but so do Kentucky, Kansas, Iowa State and most interestingly, St. John’s. Dixon once built the reputation and success of Pitt hoops on guys like Diallo, native New Yorkers who shunned the city-based school for a Big East rival. But Chris Mullin, along with newly added assistant Barry "Slice" Rohrssen, is starting to get in the Panthers’ crosshairs, not just with Diallo, who visited with Mullin over the weekend, but with another Pitt target, Marcus LoVett.
LoVett is a Californian, but the point guard finished his high school career in Chicago. He just tweeted out of his final list of eight schools. The good news -- Pitt is on there. The bad news, per LoVett’s tweet, is the schools are "in order." St. John’s is listed first, with Pitt sixth.
If both Diallo and LoVett opt to go elsewhere -- and the Panthers would be considered a long shot for both -- Dixon might be scrambling to fill those last two roster spots.