Starkey: Pitt reeling since Birch bolted
What's this• Pitt basketball on our radar screen in early January?
The Panthers are accustomed to stacking wins in relative anonymity this time of year, building their case for another nice NCAA Tournament seed. They do not capture the city's attention until the Steelers finish and the meaningful Big East games begin.
Only this season, the meaningful Big East games have begun.
This season, merely making the NCAA Tournament would be a monumental achievement.
This season, a game at DePaul in the first week of January — Thursday night at Allstate Arena — could only be described as critical.
A loss would have the buzzards circling. Pitt would drop to 0-3 in the conference with the meat-grinder portion of the schedule just ahead.
What's going on here?
Start with the departure of two high-impact recruits, the injury to point guard Travon Woodall, the shooting woes of Ashton Gibbs and the disappointing progress of players such as Dante Taylor and J.J. Moore. Those and myriad other factors have conspired to put Jamie Dixon's team in must-win mode.
Which brings me back to Nov. 30, the night Pitt improved to 7-1 by beating Duquesne. I asked forward Nasir Robinson, easily Pitt's MVP this season, where he envisioned his team a few months down the road.
"We're going to be in the Final Four," he said. "We lose good guys every year, and other guys step up. We're going to make a run this coming March."
Me: "Did you say you're going to be in the Final Four?"
Robinson: "Yeah, the Final Four."
Seemed like a stretch even then, though the only stain on Pitt's resume was a loss to a good Long Beach State team.
And there was cause for optimism, largely on account of Khem Birch, a tantalizingly talented, 6-foot-9 freshman who had started the previous two games in place of the injured Taylor.
In those games, against Penn and Robert Morris, Birch showed why he had been a McDonald's All-American. He totaled 23 points, 21 rebounds and nine blocks in 57 minutes.
As Robert Morris guard Velton Jones put it: "We really haven't seen anybody like that."
Neither had Pitt.
Birch was a different kind of player — most notably a brilliant shot blocker — and maybe the ideal player to mask the team's glaring defensive shortcomings.
Then, poof! He was gone Dec. 16, leaving a trail of questions and a team with scant ability to stop anyone.
Pitt is 2-3 since Birch left. Do you think he would have made a difference against, say, undersized and undermanned Cincinnati?
It's not hard to picture Birch playing 25-30 minutes a game by now, putting up serious numbers.
I still wonder about the circumstances of his departure, which completed a double-whammy on Pitt. Remember, Birch's decision to enroll a year earlier than expected led another touted power forward, Jaylen Bond, to ask Dixon for a release.
Now a reserve freshman at Texas, Bond had 40 points and 32 rebounds over his past four games before Wednesday.
Precious few programs could expect to lose two such prospects without serious collateral damage.
Dixon has been tight-lipped on Birch. I recently asked him why Birch's minutes slipped after the big games against Penn and Robert Morris. He cited Taylor's return and foul trouble.
The foul issue made sense in two of four games — Duquesne and VMI. Taylor's return• Well, it's true that Birch's presence seemed to spur Taylor. But it's also true that Birch already was impacting games more than Taylor ever had — or has since.
It's easy for people to label Birch a quitter, say he should have stayed and claim his career will be irrevocably damaged.
I wonder, on all three counts.
I wonder first how Birch was taken in by teammates here, on a team that doesn't appear to possess the superior leadership of Dixon's past squads.
Was there a Khem-istry issue?
Birch recently told CBSSports.com that he didn't "bond" with teammates. Robinson told me Tuesday that he was surprised by Birch's departure and that Birch "fit in." Asked if Birch had addressed the players before bolting on a bus, Robinson said no.
"He was a good kid, a great athlete, and we wish him well," Robinson said. "We're past that."
This much is certain: If Dixon somehow gets this team into the NCAA Tournament, it will be his best coaching job yet.