Gorman: Pitt's hoops hopes rely on 'Burghers'
Sheldon Jeter had a faraway look in his eyes as he allowed himself a moment to daydream about the future of Pitt basketball.
There is a realistic possibility that, in two years, the Panthers could have five Western Pennsylvania products on the floor together.
“It creates a new fan base because people that might not have been Pitt fans say they will be cheering for you,” said Jeter, a Beaver Falls graduate who played at Vanderbilt as a freshman and spent this past school year at Polk State College in Winter Haven, Fla. “It's a great thing for this city.”
And a novelty for this Pitt program, which has defied odds by becoming a perennial power without the benefit of a backyard recruiting base.
Under coach Jamie Dixon, the Panthers signed only two players from Western Pennsylvania — Yuri Demetris of Shaler in 2000 and DeJuan Blair of Schenley in '07 — until Duquesne's Mike Young arrived last summer.
Next season, Pitt will have sophomores Jeter and Young and freshmen Cameron Johnson of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Ryan Luther of Hampton. In 2016, it will add Maverick Rowan, the 6-foot-7 sharpshooter who led Lincoln Park to a PIAA Class A title.
“I never got frustrated by it because it's all I've ever known when I coached at Hawaii and Northern Arizona,” Dixon said. “All I know is going into other areas and finding kids, looking at character and what they're going to become. These kids are willing to pay the price, and maybe they have a chip on their shoulder being from Western Pa.”
Dixon is emphatic that Pitt didn't suddenly discover talent in its backyard but rather that it had the foresight to recognize promising prospects and the luck to land them.
“There's no philosophy change,” Dixon said. “It is what it is: Grades, character, size, skill. They can all play. I've been here 15 years, and we haven't had guys like that.”
Blair became a first-team All-American. In fairness, Dixon extended early offers to Aliquippa's Herb Pope and Jeannette's Terrelle Pryor, who committed as sophomores before backing out.
Pope, Pryor and Blair played for the Pittsburgh JOTS AAU Club, which has since disbanded.
That's the chicken-and-egg question in Western Pennsylvania hoops: Is the problem that there aren't enough high-major prospects to warrant an AAU power program or that the WPIAL prospects don't have an elite club to showcase them in the summer?
Jeter, Johnson and Young played AAU together, so they long ago formed a bond. But Young left Shady Side Academy after his freshman year to play in New Jersey, seeking stronger competition and a reputable club team.
“I think that hurts a lot because you have the best players in this area playing on weak AAU teams because that's all we can do,” Jeter said. “If you get a player who has a deep interest and finance it properly, we could put all the best Western Pennsylvania players on one team and showcase them around the country. Something has to be done about that.”
It's not just a matter of someone investing in Western Pennsylvania players. It's about taking a leaping of faith that you can win with them.
Dixon is doing just that.
“When there hasn't been a track record for guys from this area,” Dixon said, “it makes it hard for people to believe.”
By 2016, Pitt could have its most Western Pennsylvania-laden team since the 1973-74 Panthers with starters Billy Knight (Braddock), Mickey Martin (Baldwin), Jim Bolla (Canevin), Tom Richards (Moon) and Kirk Bruce (South Hills) and reserves Keith Starr (Quaker Valley) and Ken Wagoner (Beaver Falls).
That team reached the NCAA Elite Eight, something Pitt has done only once since — when Blair was its star. Dixon hopes to duplicate that success.
“I know people questioned it, based on Pittsburgh's track record and that of Western Pa., but sometimes you have to go with it,” Dixon said. “I feel like they're going to be good players. They've got a long way to go, but I think they're going to be good. I really do.”
For the future of basketball in the 'Burgh, Pitt's hoops hopes could be counting on it.