Starkey: The key question for Pitt basketball
By Joe Starkey
Published: Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 9:50 p.m.
A week ago I set out to explore a question that has come up roughly eight billion times over the past decade: Why can't Jamie Dixon bring in better recruits?
People see Pitt winning tons of regular-season games but not enough postseason games. The Panthers have just three postseason wins since 2008-09 — one against a terrible St. John's team in the Big East Tournament and one each against Oakland and UNC-Asheville in the NCAA Tournament (unless you count the CBI, and nobody but Pitt counts the CBI).
You don't need John Calipari to tell you that great players often take over the biggest games. Think of Sam Young pouring in 32 points against Oklahoma State in the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
That was Dixon's best team, his highest-scoring team and the one that got closest to the Final Four. Why? Because it had two NBA players and a really good college point guard in Levance Fields. All three were top-90 national recruits in Rivals' rankings: DeJuan Blair (59), Young (71), Fields (88).
Blair and Young exceeded expectations, but all three were expected to be good. They delivered. We're not exactly cracking the Da Vinci Code here.
Which leads us back to the question: Why can't Dixon attract more big-time recruits?
First, I queried local and national recruiting pundits and gathered several theories: Dixon doesn't cater to prima-donna star types, doesn't cozy up to AAU coaches, doesn't cheat, doesn't play a wide-open style, doesn't have a local recruiting base, etc.
I filed it all away, then spoke with lead recruiter Barry Rohrssen in a radio interview. He provided valuable nuggets. One was something Dixon told him when Rohrssen returned to the program before this season.
“Right away, (Dixon) told me he wants to score the basketball more,” Rohrssen said.
Next up was a conversation with Dixon in which he was alternately evasive and defensive. He said he's looking for more length in recruits these days, “not shying away from” elite recruits and has no philosophical opposition to one-and-done players.
“We would not walk away from a kid if he was one-and-done,” Dixon said. “We proved that with Steven Adams.”
The NCAA changed a rule last year, allowing four coaches instead of three to hit the road recruiting. Patrick Sandle was a longtime Pitt assistant, but recruiting wasn't his bag. Dixon replaced him with Rohrssen. Dixon would not comment on that move, but it's clear he has upped the ante.
“We haven't been perfect, but at the end of the day, our record has been very good,” Dixon said. “It's not an exact science.”
True enough. But it's no mystery at the highest levels, either. Everybody wants the best players because they often win the biggest games.
Why can't Pitt get more of them? Because it takes longer than anyone wants to admit to build a national imprint, that's why. Having perused all of the evidence and analyzed all of the theories, that is my best answer.
Pitt's recruiting trajectory is headed up, just not in a straight line. Time takes time. This program has been good for a little more than a decade, which means high school seniors were about 7 when all of this began. One cycle won't do it, not when you consider what Pitt is up against.
As Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News once told me: “Programs like Kentucky and Kansas have been winning NCAA championships for decades, investing financially and emotionally in being great.”
In other words, as far as basketball powers go, Pitt is barely out of middle school.
I'm not buying the system-is-too-methodical charge, either. Dixon's 2009 team ran plenty. He hardly stifled the talent. Pitt was running more this season, too, until it landed in the slowest conference in America.
Through fits and starts, Dixon has been attracting higher-rated players. Pitt signed its first McDonald's All-American (Dante Taylor) in 20 years in 2009, the same year it had two players drafted into the NBA for the first time since 1988. He then signed his first two top-10 recruits: Khem Birch in 2011 and Adams in 2012.
This freshman class has promise but no big names. Next year's looks similar. Maybe it's most instructive to look ahead to 2015 and '16. For 2015, Pitt has received a verbal commitment from intriguing 6-4 point guard Damon Wilson, who had an offer from Florida, and is hot on the trail of his teammate: 6-9 forward Cheick Diallo, Rivals' No. 8-rated national recruit.
For 2016, Pitt has secured verbal commitments — for what they're worth — from guard Mustapha Heron, Rivals' No. 13 recruit, and Maverick Rowan, a 6-6, sharpshooting four-star recruit from Lincoln Park Charter School.
Best case is that with a little more time, your question might be less relevant.
Better yet, it might disappear altogether.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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