A bunch of Pitt fans/alumni writing and ranting about the University of Pittsburgh Panthers and anything sports and entertainment related. Other than being alumni, the writers of this blog have no affiliation or official connection with the University of Pittsburgh, the Pitt Panthers, and related entities. The views expressed on this blog are solely our own. You can e-mail us: PittSportsBlather-at-sbcglobal.net.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Basketball Notes -- Goodbye To You 

Here's something no one saw coming, Chris Taft looks more likely than ever to go to the NBA Draft. He has time to make his decsion -- until May. Funny thing about both stories. No one is hearing anything from Taft since his "50-50" comment after the Pacific loss. The P-G story is much more critical of his game with some comments from ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla.
Many NBA scouts love his athleticism, but others are not confident he has enough of a post game to be consistently successful in the NBA.

Those discrepancies make Taft one of the most controversial prospects of the year. In various mock drafts on basketball Web sites (nbadraft.net, probasketball.com and collegehoopsnet.com), Taft is projected as a top-10 pick, but he could slide as other high school, college and international players declare.

"Could Chris Taft go in the lottery? Possibly," Fraschilla said. "But he would be better served to stay and dominate in the Big East for a year. This season, it was one night he looked like a first-round pick and the next night it looked like he didn't care about being out there. I was disappointed with Chris' sophomore year. I thought he would dominate the [Big East]. I can see him going anywhere from No. 5 to 25."
"Chris fits into the range of someone who could be a good pro or he could be out of the league quickly and having to learn to learn a second language. Chris could be in a situation two years from now where he's playing in Turkey. Chris' stock would rise if he focused on having one great college season"

I think we know the cliches, "you can't teach size," "potential," and "upside." All apply to Taft. I haven't seen a mock draft yet that doesn't have Taft in the top-10. How can you not go for the guaranteed cash of a 1op-10, especially with further cap and salary restrictions likely in the NBA after this draft?

Sidenote a Chevon Troutman ranges from anywhere to a late 2nd to just outside the draft board. It will be worth watching to see if Troutman can help his stock at some of the workout camps.

In other notes, an article mentions in passing that past Pitt point guard Jerry McCullough is playing in the Italian Basketball League for A.J. Milan.

From the "regrets, I've had a few" department, an article talking about the numerous departures from the Penn State basketball team.

Center Rob Summers, who is currently redshirting at West Virginia, left Penn State after last year's 9-19 season because he simply couldn't take the losing.

"Once the season was over and we went to Big Ten tournament, I thought it was time to move on," Summers said. "Losing took its toll on me."

But why, then, did he commit to Penn State as a high school senior when the Lions finished last in the Big Ten with a 7-21 record?

"The coaching staff and opportunity to play and not redshirt attracted me to Penn State," Summers said. "It came down to Pitt and Penn State, but Pitt wanted me to redshirt."

And instead he is now sitting out the year at WVU.

Football -- More on the Latest Recruit 

With the Trib. getting the scoop on everyone else yesterday, there are choices.

Option 1, just report the story without acknowledging who broke it first.

Pitt was the first school to offer a scholarship, but Johnstown coach Bob Arcurio said 15-20 Division I colleges had requested film on Corson.

Corson attended "junior days" at Michigan State and Maryland.

"After he went to Pitt, he just said he enjoyed the coaching staff so much," Arcurio said. "And it wasn't just the big man [Wannstedt]. He said all the coaches were down to earth.

"Big Man." That could work.

The other, especially if you are in the business of covering recruiting, mention that the story was false, though accurate.

Greater Johnstown (Pa.) high school was planning a press conference this morning so defensive tackle/offensive lineman Scott Corson could announce his intentions to attend the University of Pittsburgh. A local newspaper ran with the story early this morning, one problem though Corson wasn't committed.

"I was a little surprised when I heard about that," Corson said. "I told the guy I was in the process of committing. I never committed until about 9:50 AM this morning, that's when I called Coach Wannstedt and broke the news."
According to Scout's Big East/Pitt Recruiting analyst Rob Lichtenfels

Corson is a slender 280-pound lineman, if that's possible. He has the frame that should enable him to gain an additional 20 pounds and most would not be able to tell. His size will be the determining factor as to which position he plays at the next level.

"No one ever believes me when I tell them I weigh 280 pounds," laughed Corson. "Pitt likes me at defensive tackle, but it will depend on how big I get."

On tape, you can see what coaches like about Corson. He has exceptional feet and balance for a big man. He moves really well, he gets to the second level very fast, he has outstanding hip and knee bend. He is still raw in many facets of the game, but he has the frame and speed that college's love in a lineman. With one to two years in a college strength and conditioning program Corson will be a specimen.

Corson will attend Pittsburgh's Blue Chip junior day this weekend. He will also attend the Scout.com Combine at Akron University, May 28th .
According to the article, Corson had transferred from a smaller high school to Johnstown the previous year. Sounds like a familiar discussion.

Also worth noting, a puff piece on defensive end Azzie Beagnyam coming back from a fractured ankle he suffered in the Nebraska game.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Football Recruiting -- A New Verbal 

Look, maybe I'm trying to find the dark cloud in all of this, but I have to get this out of my system. These really early recruits make me a little nervous. It's along the line of what Paterno does/did with recruiting. Where he'd lock up his class really early, only to find out that those evaluations weren't as accurate. Then have no more scholarships to offer other blue-chippers who would have helped and were still out there. It was part of what caught up to Penn State the last couple of years.

Now having said that, I understand that Wannstedt is doing this in part, to show to the area coaches and recruits how important they are and how much he is focusing on Western Pennsylvania. And of course, because the recruits look to be very good.

The latest verbal comes from Johnstown -- Scott Corson.

He chose Pitt, which sent a written offer last week, over verbal offers from Maryland and Michigan State.

"I've wanted to go to Pitt for a long time, anyway," Corson said. "I've always liked the school and its athletics. I'm pretty excited. It's a great school. I'm real happy about it."
Corson was a two-way starter for the District 6 champion Trojans last season after transferring from Conemaugh Valley. He started at left tackle, both offensively and defensively.

Johnstown coach Bob Arcurio said Corson is still "raw" athletically, but opened scouts' eyes with his speed. Corson said he has been timed at 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

"Fundamentally, he needed a lot of work - he still does - but he's quick," Arcurio said. "That's what Pitt liked. Coach Wannstedt is looking for speed."
Arcurio said Corson decided to pick Pitt after receiving handwritten letters from more than a dozen schools, including Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State.

Corson will be playing both Defensive End and Right Guard this year. Line play. Line play. Line play.

There isn't much info yet at the recruiting sites, but the list of interested schools include a several from the Big 11.

Lawsuit Articles -- As Expected 

Nothing not already reported in any of the stories writing up the lawsuit. Pitt isn't commenting. The lawyers for the case have plenty of quotes about how the season ticket holders had an iron-clad guarantee and are being wronged.

They are seeking an injunction before the expected reseating in May.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Not Much There 

Question for the readers: are any of you season ticket holders for Pitt basketball? Not the student section. I'm talking about the mandatory donation for the right to buy season tickets group. I'm wondering whether season ticket-holders have to sign anything else or get further documentation from Pitt, to the effect that the "university reserves the right to change the terms, yada, yada, yada." Send me an e-mail if you are.

I've been looking over the complaint for the class action. It makes the basic claims, but there is not much there. The causes of action are: Breach of Contract; Promissory Estoppel; and Violation of the PA Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (73 PS Sec. 201-2(xiv)). The last is essentially a codified contract claim ("Failing to comply with the terms of any written guarantee or warranty given to the buyer at, prior to or after a contract for the purchase of goods or services is made").

All of the claims are essentially based on the brochure sent out in 2000 that stated they would be guaranteeing the right to their seat.

They don't cite to any precedents in the initial complaint. I live and practiced law in Ohio, so I don't know how Pennsylvania would treat this sort of fact pattern. It doesn't really pass my "sniff test," but you never know if the case ends up before a grandstanding judge in the Allegheny Common Pleas Court.

I don't think much of the ticket policy, as I keep repeating, and I think Pitt is badly overestimating the demand for season tickets. Rex, in the comments, probably summed this up best.
leave it to Pitt to ruin a good thing. The Pete was always filled, fans and alumni were happy, the team was winning, now they are gouging the fans and expect them to have no opinion. Another stupid mistake.
A particularly ham-handed approach.

Early Watch List 

H.B. Blades was one of 54 players named to the Lombardi Award Watch list. The Lombardi Award is eligible to "down linemen and defensive players who line up within five yards of the football."

According to the press release on the watch list, this is the preliminary list assembled based on those who received accolades in the post 2004 season. In Blades' case, being named to the 1st team All-Big East. Additional names will be added to the watch list in August.

The first, last and only Pitt player to win this award was, of course, Hugh Green in 1980.

Late News 

Well, the threatened lawsuit against Pitt for its new donation/seating policy at the Pete is happening.
Prior to the opening of the Petersen Events Center in 2002, Pitt created and promoted a season ticket plan that promised in writing that season ticket holders would be able to keep their same seats every year if they maintained or increased their contributions to the Athletic Department's fundraising program "Team Pittsburgh," which is now called "The Panther Club." Last month, Pitt announced a new plan that reassigns non-Club season ticket seats every year based on a number of factors, including the size of contributions to the Athletic Department's new fundraising drive.
They have a website for this. You can download a copy of the complaint and exhibits (PDF).

I haven't had time to read the just filed lawsuit, so I don't yet have an opinion of the merits. From the press release and the previous story on this, I am suspicious. There is an awful lot of reliance on a brochure encouraging people to get season tickets to form the contract claim.

I'm not a big fan of the approach Pitt has taken in this scheme for increasing "donations," and I think they overestimate the actual level of interest in acquiring season tickets. So, what may be the result is that Pitt drops the reseating strategy. We'll see.

Monday, March 28, 2005

No Surprise 

The "rumor" (I consider it virtually a given) is getting stronger (via Yoni).
Look for Pitt's big man, Chris Taft, to formally announce that he's heading to the pros after the Final Four. Taft, out of Coney Island, could be a lottery pick, depending on his predraft workouts.
The only question, now, is if he even finishes the semester.

Reasoning Why The Big East Will Split 

It's been a while since I wrote about the future of the Big East. Now that we are starting into the lull period of football and basketball, finding material to talk about on PSB becomes a little more difficult. The good news, is that means more of what I write will be more analysis and less link and quotes. The bad news, it means putting up with my prose.

When the Big East was raided by the ACC, the logic was there. Money from football. The ACC wanted a bigger share of the BCS pie, the money from a conference championship, and money from the TV rights.

The Big East football contract for TV is going to be a major factor in splitting the conference. Without Miami, VT and even BC (market not marquee value for the last), the BE is facing not just lower amounts of money for the TV contract, but also less control over when the games will be played if the schools want to get on TV and get the money.

This cannot be understated. The BE football teams will be playing a lot of games on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights in the next few years. While occasional games like that are good for highlighting the schools and the conference, it is hell on actual game attendance and enthusiasm. Football has to fill much bigger crowds than basketball. With fewer games, there is a reason for the evolution of tailgating and such. For football you draw fans from a much larger area who come with the plan of making it a full day event. You can't do that with weekday games.

People like Lee or I who come in from the 100+ mile range are going to start missing more games. (Yes, I'm being a bit selfish, but that doesn't change the point.) It means more empty seats -- which is not what you want to see on the TV screen if you want to promote the team and program. It means more disgruntled fans and alumni who can't make the games or don't like the hassle. It means more unpredictability as the games are shifted late and after the schedule was announced and season tickets are sold. It also means pissing off local high schools with Friday night games to hurt their attendance and focus.

The Mountain West Conference had several years of that before they finally had enough.
Last year the Mountain West became the first I-A conference to leave ESPN. Mountain West TV (carrying league football and basketball games) kicks off in 2006 on new cable network CSTV.

College Sports Television is trying to stay a step ahead of the copy cats.

Having to play midweek games and perceived second-class status became too much for the conference's presidential board. Commissioner Craig Thompson was charged with finding a new TV home. In what was a largely ignored, but significant, deal, he was able to sign a deal with fledgling CSTV in September.

"Us leaving ESPN was the chink in the armor," Thompson said. "They lost a client for the first time ever, so to speak. Not that we meant that much to them."

Time will tell whether the move to CSTV (College Sports Television) was progressive or ill-advised. ESPN is still the 800-pound gorilla but even it can't account for the increasingly fragmented college sports market. Conference USA followed the Mountain West to CSTV, although some of its inventory will remain on ESPN.

Sure, the Mountain West got a 71 percent rights fees increase but it also lost "reach," the pairs of eyeballs that could see its product. CSTV, which debuted in 2003, is on most major cable systems but lags far behind the Worldwide Leader in terms of viewers and clout.

"They realized they were not going to get the attention they deserved for the sports they deserved stuck as one tiny piece of ESPN's (empire)," said CSTV cofounder Brian Bedol.
The league's first televised game was Washington-BYU six years ago on a Thursday night. It was eventually asked to play more midweek games. League presidents finally had enough. The midweek games were starting either too early (5:30 p.m. in the Mountain and Pacific time zones) or too late (7:30 or 8).

"We were getting so far away from Saturday football," Thompson said. "Each year incrementally ... (they were) pushing us back to the edges. Our (presidents) said, 'Monday night at 10 o'clock (Eastern Time)? I'm losing thousands of fans.'"

Playing on actual Saturday afternoons should allow the league to get stronger.
The Big East, with its markets in larger, more eastern areas would be an attractive pairing with CSTV as it tries to get into more markets. Or perhaps the BE might strike a deal with one of the Fox Sports new college networks. It would put more games back on Saturday, and it would get more attention and publicity on CSTV or elsewhare than it will from ESPN. Yes, ESPN is the kingmaker of TV college football, but the BE is going to be relegated increasingly to weekday games which isn't good for the long-term health of the programs.

The problem is the basketball side of things. The basketball schools have no incentive to leave ESPN. They see none of the football money. What do they care if Pitt and UConn are playing a football game in October on a Wednesday? How does that hurt St. John's? They get good money and exposure from the basketball portion of the deal. They have no reason to want the change. In fact, for them, it is a bad deal. The money may not be quite as high, and the national exposure definitely drops. They would fight against any move away from ESPN.

For the Big East football schools, though, they risk a little to gain a lot more. Especially if they work a deal with CSTV -- which as seen in the NCAA basketball tournament -- is already pooling resources and working relationships with CBS Sports (network TV access). Think about media market attraction for a new sports channel by swinging a deal for the college rights for football and basketball for Louisville, Cinci, Syracuse, UConn and Pitt. Even Rutgers gets into the NY/NJ market.

Twenty-five years ago, the Big East was forward thinking with regards to TV contracts and cable. They need to start thinking about taking some new risks.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

General Notes 

Not a lot to talk about today or this evening.

An article talking about Pitt's secondary. No surprise that the corners are talking positively about playing tighter coverage in 2005.

Cornerbacks Josh Lay and Darrelle Revis couldn't be happier about that. The former Aliquippa High School teammates should excel in that in-your-face style, and they believe Pitt's defense will be better this season.

"I like that much better," Revis said. "We're not going to let anybody punch us in the mouth anymore. We're trying to take the first punch when we come out there and let people know that we're going to be aggressive.

"We're going to be way more aggressive and physical, up in your face, that style of defense. We got a couple tapes from the Miami Dolphins, and we've studied tapes like that with them up in your grill."

Revis was a fuzzy-faced freshman last fall, but he quickly blossomed into a clutch performer and earned freshman All-America honors. Lay, going in his third season as a starter, is the senior leader of an experienced secondary. He also supports the new defensive style.

"They put us on the line to help redirect the receivers," Lay said. "And, once people put their hands on receivers and mess up their timing and their routes, it'll be a great advantage for us. That's my style.

"If I can put my hands on you, it'll be better off for me instead of being 9 yards off and letting them come to you before making the break."

The test, of course, will be to see the corners stay with their guy and not pick up penalties.

Another article discusses the transition for Coach Wannstedt and other pro-to-college coaches with the limits on practice times while recruiting 365 days a year. Seems Coach Wannstedt is also letting the players grow facial hair and wear jewelry.

Final item, really isn't about Pitt, but the column was too stupid to let pass. Smizik has a piece decrying the "unfair advantage" of private high schools and being able to recruit kids from outside limited geographic areas for sports. Wow. Startling stuff. Didn't see anything like that, say, 10 years ago when Hoop Dreams was released.

Maybe I'm just cynical about this sort of thing since I've seen it anywhere I've lived -- Chicago, Cleveland, Youngstown, Pittsburgh -- not exactly a quiet secret.

Of course, nothing like that happens in public schools. Why parents wouldn't "move" into an apartment in another school district so their kid could be "living" within a different area. I mean, gosh, I didn't see that happen at Lebanon High School (my high school), where the father of some hot young QB named Kerry Collins, was pissed at the way his son was being used in his freshman year. He suddenly found an apartment to live in the Wilson High School district, and it just so happened that his son transferred there despite living most of the time at his mom's house in Lebanon.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Because He Won't 

I will call some attention to it. One of the very infrequently posting members of PSB, John has a website to promote his new (and future) books.
Deadhouse chronicles the exploits of a diverse team of death investigators at a coroner's office in Pittsburgh. Ed Strimlan is a doctor who never got to practice medicine, so instead he diagnoses how people die. Mike Chichwak is a stolid ex-paramedic, respected around the coroner's office for his compassion and doggedness. Tiffani Hunt is twenty-one, a single mother who questions whether she wants to spend her nights around dead bodies.

All three deputy coroners share one trait: a compulsive curiosity. A good thing too, because any observation at a death scene can prove meaningful. A bag of groceries standing on a kitchen counter, the milk turning sour. A broken lamp lying on the carpet of an otherwise-tidy living room. When they approach a corpse, the investigators consider everything. Is the victim face-up or down? How stiff are the limbs? Are the hands dirty or clean? By the time they bag the body and load it into the coroner's wagon, Tiffani, Ed and Mike often have unearthed intimate details that are unknown even to the victim's family and friends.
We'll skip the CSI: Pittsburgh jokes.

Congratulations, John, but now you have less excuses not to post some more from Hoopieland.

B-Ball Notes: Roasting Dixon 

In the final basketball Q&A for Ray Fittipaldo, it would appear that the overwhelming majority of the questions were declarations that Coach Dixon sucks and then asking variations of when will he be fired. Similar bile was spewed Dixon's way in the letters page. You would have thought this team was Providence.

Over at ACC BasketBlog there is an interesting piece regarding ever-embattled NC State coach Herb Sendek as a zen master:
But we have not wanted our short, balding leader to only conform to our peers' successes, we've wanted him to conform to our expectations of a good coach and strong leader. You know, to do things like, well, win lots of games. Or, at least demonstrate good communication skills. I mean, if he can't connect to us and the media, how can he possibly make sense to his players? It's very hard to picture Sendek rallying his kids in the locker room, shouting before taking the floor, "our paradigm for defense is more holistic!" You know what though, I can totally picture him calmly reciting parables from Bhudda in the middle of a timeout.
The criticisms that have plagued Sendek in the past reemerged stronger than ever. He can't win close games. He had at least four games to show that he could draw up a play at the end of a game to get off a good shot, and his team failed each time. He can't adjust his diligently prepared plans in mid-game. He had no answer when woeful UVa, of all teams, surprised him with a stall and possession game plan. He doesn't know how to develop players or best utilize his personnel. Andrew Brackman, after starting so strong, all but disappeared from the box scores in midseason.
[Emphasis added.]

While I don't see Dixon as a zen master, the issues of communication and what is expected from a head coach is a factor in the number of Pitt fans ready throw Dixon off the bus after this season. His public communication skills has been something that has driven me up a wall these 2 seasons.

Let's face it, Pitt fans (and most Pittsburghians) like their coaches and managers to be loud, forceful, emotional and blunt. On and off the court/field. There is a sort of appreciation with that. Like the coach understands the fans' emotions and feelings.

With Coach Dixon, no matter how much he yells and stomps on the sidelines, when it comes time for that interview -- ugh and yawn. He just drops into zombie-cliched-coach.

Another piece rating the draft and top Power Forward prospects (Subs. only).

Most GMs will tell you that they always draft for talent, never for need. The problem with that theory is that most teams always need more big men.

The ability of an athletic, 6-foot-10 power player to change the course of a game or season is proven and most teams, especially bad ones, are always in the hunt for them.

That's why, year after year, the lottery is usually dominated by folks 6-8 and taller.

As many as five of this year's lottery picks will likely be power forwards. Nowadays they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big, burly bruisers like Pittsburgh's Chris Taft and Duke's Shelden Williams. Others are skilled fours who dominate outside as well as inside like Utah's Andrew Bogut and Lithuania's Martynas Andriuskevicius. And then there's your yearly quota of guys like Hakim Warrick and Wayne Simien who would be lottery picks if they grew two or three more inches in college.

And here's the rub. Different scouts like different types of power forwards, meaning that the stock of everyone except Bogut and Spain's Fran Vasquez is all over the place. A few scouts still have Taft in the top five. Others have dropped him down into the late teens. Some scouts have Warrick in the late lottery, others in the 20s. A couple of scouts have Simien in the middle of the first round, others in the second round.

In other words, creating a consensus ranking of the top 10 power forwards this early, before we know who is drafting where, is almost impossible. It's a bit of a mess.
2. Chris Taft, Pittsburgh
The line: 6-10, 260, Sophomore
The skinny: After sleepwalking through the season, Taft might have done enough in the first round of the tournament to help resurrect his draft stock. Taft has the rare combination of size, athleticism, strength and power that had NBA scouts calling him a top-three pick before the season began. However, his lackluster performance during the regular season has raised serious questions about his work ethic and attitude. Despite the hand wringing, everyone still concedes that the chances of Taft's falling out of the top 10, if he declares, are slim. There's a dearth of athletic big men in college basketball. When one comes along, very few teams are willing to pass him up. If he can follow up his solid tournament performance with some great individual workouts, his stock will rise. He's not the stellar prospect he was at the beginning of the season, but in the right system, with the right motivation, Taft still has the most potential of any big guy on the board. Where that leaves him on draft night is anyone's guess. Most scouts still have him rated between the Nos. 5 and 10 picks. However, a couple have moved him entirely out of the lottery.
In other words, if this season didn't really hurt his draft stock by more than a couple spots, what does coming back actually do for him?

Focus on Line Play 

Specifically the offensive line.

Offensive tackle Mike McGlynn felt almost powerless as Utah's defense mercilessly blitzed Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko in the Utes' 35-7 Fiesta Bowl shellacking of the Panthers in January.

He was horrified when he watched film of the game and found out Palko was sacked nine times.

How do you think we felt?

The players on the offensive line seem very optimistic about the running game. Saying this gives them a chance to be more aggressive and attack. I like the optimism, but I'm hoping for more than that. I'm hoping they, you know, learn more technique and get more skilled. Pitt's running game last year, was practically null, in large part because the offensive line couldn't produce any penetration or create holes.

The change in offensive philosophy, while welcomed by the offensive linemen, will not come without sacrifice. The first thing is, all of the linemen have been asked to drop a little bit of weight -- on average between 15 to 20 pounds -- because they will be asked to move around a lot more.

Losing weight, however, does not mean losing strength. McGlynn and Simonitis said they are losing weight gradually while getting stronger and quicker. That should produce a line that is not only fast and physical, but lean and mean as well.

Because Wannstedt wants his linemen to be leaner and quicker, there could be a number of players who will lose their jobs. The competition for starting jobs on the offensive line figures to be intense as the players must prove they are capable of playing physical football.

Well, that and graduation of a number of players on the O-line.

The P-G Pitt football beat reporter Paul Zeise has a Q&A this first week of spring practice. A lot of the questions involve individual present and former players. But there is this.

Q: Is it true Pitt is changing its uniforms for the 2005 season?

ZEISE: Yes, but from what I understand the changes, while noticeable, will be more subtle than the rumors out there would suggest. This is not going to like 1976 or 1982. From what I was told it will look more like last year with some slight alterations to the numbers and the logo. You never know, though, the athletic department is trying to keep this secret until they have a grand unveiling later in the spring or early summer. You'd think by the way everyone is so hush, hush about it they were holding nuclear secrets or something.

Q: How well is Dave Wannstedt being received by high school coaches in recruiting?

ZEISE: Tremendous. He is being given celebrity coach status almost everywhere he has been. That's the kind of respect and attention that is usually reserved for the big-name coaches out there. One assistant told me they used to walk in the back door of a lot of schools in Florida, for instance, and head straight to the coaches office. Now, they walk in the front and they are greeted by teachers and students looking to meet coach Wannstedt and even get his autograph. That kind of buzz is what the last regime lacked, although they obviously had success in a lot of areas as well. I think -- although the Penn State-conspiracy theories about certain high school coaches in this area are juvenile - it is significant that Wannstedt's first recruit for next year is from Gateway. The last staff seemed to shun and push away, rather than embrace and work with, Terry Smith because of his Penn State roots, which was a mistake. Pitt likely wouldn't have gotten Justin King anyway, but let me tell you, as many players as Gateway has and will have, this is certainly a coach you want on your side. So that's a great sign and it is an even better sign that I've seen Smith at practices this spring with some of his other players and I've talked to him and he really likes and respects Wannstedt and appreciates the way Pitt is doing things.

Also, the strength and conditioning coach, Mike Kent is still with the team. Zeise seems quite pleased with that.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Spring Practice And Replay 

Apparently Coach Wannstedt talked about the Big East announcing that it will have replay next season. Not surprisingly, for a former NFL coach, he's in favor of it.

Thursday, Wannstedt backed the Big East's decision to begin using replay this fall. In the system, which was pioneered two years ago by the Big Ten, the decision on whether or not a call should be reviewed rests solely with an official in the press box.

"This is going to be a lot more coach-friendly than the NFL's system," Wannstedt said. "We're really not going to have any decision in it, and I think that will be good."

I guess I'm agnostic on the issue. It's fine to have it, but I'm not thinking of it as one of the burning issues of college football.

In a change for the secondary, they will be playing closer to the receiver and the line. That 8-12 yard cushion they were giving last year should be history.

With all the talk about how Pitt will be running the ball more, it is still unclear who the starter will be. Competition appears to be wide open. Even Freshman Rashad Jennings looks like a possibility.

The Dave Wannstedt Summer Football Camps have been announced. There's the Little Panther Camp (PDF) for kids 6-11. Then there are camps for everyone else (PDF). The camps take place in June.

Final piece on Pitt's only likely first day draft pick, Rob Petitti. Just a puff piece about his increasing maturity and becoming an adult. Standard fare.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Few B-Ball Things 

Last year, Joe Starkey defefended Carl Krauser after the Oklahoma St. game. He reprises the defense once more. I know most of the complaints I read or get about Krauser tends to be about his turnovers. I find it a bit misleading considering how much he handled the ball and the fact that Pitt as a team was about average in turnovers (#169 out of 330).

Krauser seems to create love or hate feelings. I'm on the love side, but his game is still nowhere near ready for the NBA.

Now, regarding the Trib article where they were looking for Pitt fans rooting for WVU? The results are rather shallow.

Louisville Coach Rick Pitino briefly talks about going to the Big East next year.

Some Football Notes 

Since I haven't posted like spring practice is the most important thing, so here's a contrary view.

I'm here to tell you spring practice is more important than any practice outside of the regular season. More important than the utterly useless bowl week practices. And -- believe it or not -- more important than fall camp.

"Spring practice is critical," N.C. State coach Chuck Amato says, "because summer is right after it."

Translation: There is no bigger motivating factor than four months of wondering how hard the guy ahead of or behind you on the depth chart is working. A month of fall camp can't make up for 16 weeks of preparation.

There are other reasons spring practice is important -- a new staff implementing its systems, young players getting used to more prominent roles -- but the lure of playing time remains the No. 1 factor.

Fair enough.

The Big East, apparently deciding not to wait until May to make it official, now announced that instant replay will be implemented.

Finally, since it is the offseason, there is mostly speculative pieces. How about Tyler Palko included in this list of the top 10 Heisman candidates.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Spring Practice: Position Changes and Contact 

Along with the claims of no position or place on the depth chart is safe by Coach Wannstedt, it seems that the kids are going to be facing the challenge of being moved to new positions.

Redshirt Sophomore Chris McKillop after being moved from linebacker to fullback because of need, is now looking at becoming a defensive end, as part of Coach Wannstedt's emphasis on speed.

"Coach asked me if I ever heard of Jason Taylor," said McKillop, referring to the Miami Dolphins' all-pro defensive end. "[They] explained to me that Jason, who is one of the best defensive ends in the business, is only about 235, 240 pounds. I've been watching some films of him with [defensive ends] coach [Charlie] Partridge, and he is just an amazing player.

"One of the reasons they asked me to switch was my speed. I plan on gaining a little weight, but I know now after watching Jason, you don't have to be huge to play this position if you're quick and tough."

Taylor, a Woodland Hills High School graduate listed at 6 feet 6, 260 pounds in the team's media guide, is the prototype for the type of defensive player Wannstedt is looking for -- fast, relentless and aggressive.

McKillop has those traits, which is why he was a candidate to move to defensive end. He is big and strong 6 feet 2, 240 pounds -- can run -- under 4.6 in the 40 -- and is one of Pitt's most aggressive players.

It will be interesting to see, not because I disagree with the move (I don't), but because Pitt had some speed on defense last year. The problem, too often then not, was that the defenders on the outside overpursued, especially against the run, and were out of position. It will be interesting to see if the increased emphasis of speed on defense is also matched with increased discipline in pursuit and getting off the block.

Thomas Smith, a fifth year senior, is getting moved from the defensive end position to inside linebacker. Charles Spencer who moved from defensive line to offensive guard is shifting to tackle. He is still staying on the left side. Apparently the lines are in for a lot of shifting about.

The full-pad practice had an extra surprise when Wannstedt moved it outside.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt caught some of his players off guard Tuesday when he held the first full-pads workout of spring drills on the outdoor fields at the UPMC South Side facility.

"There was no way I was going to have my first practice in pads and walk into that locker room without having anybody with mud on their pants," Wannstedt said, grinning.

In what was not a surprise, every player said liked it. What? You were expecting anyone to complain? Wannstedt is also going to allow the QB to take some limited contact, rather than keep him completely off limits. This is only a good idea, unless he gets hurt. Then it becomes a stupid risk.

Final piece on the comeback from injury for WR Terrell Allen. He should help the kick return immediately. More importantly, if he comes back and plays as expected, he should provide another big weapon for the offense. He should benefit from extra attention paid to Greg Lee.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Tomorrow's News Sought Today 

Talk about fishing for a story.
The West Virginia Mountaineers have captured the college basketball worldÂ’s heart with their magical run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments. But has these inspired efforts been enough to win over Pitt fans -- and if so, why?

The Tribune-Review is looking for Pitt fans/students who have hopped upon the West Virginia bandwagon as the Mountaineers prepare to play in the Sweet 16.
It was easy to root for the Hoopies against the ACC and Wake Forest. The only reason I can back them now is strictly utilitarian and cynical -- for the overall honor of the Big East, and to make Pitt's losses to them appear a little less embarrassing.

Assorted Football Notes 

Nothing cohesive today. Just some pieces to link and comment.

The only local story, a puff piece on the brothers McKillop.

Matt Hayes is getting bad information if he truly thinks the Pitt-Penn St. Rivalry game will happen with a 3-2 deal. Home-and-home or nothing.

If you think Pitt's "Quest for Excellence" is being a little rough with the mandatory donations, it's nothing when you see how much you have to donate, just to get a parking pass near BC's stadium.
The parking situation for Boston College home football games continues to defy imagination. Fans thought things might improve after the college bought 43 acres of abutting land from the Archdiocese of Boston.

If anything, things have become more bizarre.

To be considered for a spot in the newly acquired parcel, season-ticket holders must donate at least $500 to the school.

Donors at the $1,000 level will be considered for the on-campus Commonwealth Avenue parking garage.

Most donors at the $2,000-or-above level will receive outdoor parking with full tailgating privileges.

Then it gets expensive. From the letter sent to season-ticket holders from the athletic administration: "We anticipate that donors at the $5,000 level or greater will receive first choice of parking.

"Donors at the $10,000 level will have an opportunity to receive a reserved parking space (excluding Shea Field)."
When you make it that expensive to tailgate before a football game, you are only creating hostility, late arrivals, and no-shows.

An intriguing fantasy set-up to re-shuffle the BCS Conferences.

In order for real revolution to happen in college football, there has to be a way to preserve the integrity of the regular season, and conference realignments have to be settled once and for all. Most importantly, every D-I team deserves the right to come into a season dreaming of a chance to play for the national championship.

Below is a plan for realigning the conferences to form six leagues of 12 teams. There should be an eight-team playoff for the national title which means the national title teams will play three post-season games. For those who'd complain about missed class time, ask the men's basketball teams how much time is being missed this March.
National -- Six Big East programs would remain with Rutgers being moved to Independent status. The Mountain West division would take the best of the WAC teams and merge with some of the best Mountain West programs. UNLV is the toughest call as Wyoming or San Diego State could also get the final spot. Because of the market, the Rebels would get the nod. Remember that market size and TV share is as important as how good the program has been.
Big East -- Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia
Mountain West -- Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, New Mexico, TCU, UNLV

Notre Dame would be placed in the Big 11, and the Pac-10 would expand with BYU and Utah

Also a little annoyance for me, because I was toying with a similar concept and going to make it into one of the offseason posts. Guess that's why you need to blog quickly at times.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Dixon, Dixon, Dixon 

Lots of articles over the weekend questioning Coach Jamie Dixon's performance in his second year as head basketball coach. His grace period is over. I'd say the majority comes down to -- and is justified -- with regards to the bench. And by that, I mean who plays, when and how their performance is judged. It's the one area, everyone can agree seemed to be his weakest point this year.

There are other issues of criticism -- Pitt's defense and 3-point shooting -- that really can't be blamed on Dixon. It's not like Pitt was Wake Forest bad on defense. In fact, they were one of the better defensive teams again this year (#40). It's that the personnel was different. There are very few players in the entire college game that could play defense like Page and Brown.

Part of this is self-inflicted by Dixon's defensive response to questions about how the team seemed to take some steps backwards during the season. Instead, he claimed the team had improved. Well, that just opened the door.

I honestly don't think Dixon is delusional. I think he was just trying to take the heat off of the players. The problem was that he did it the wrong way. Dixon needed to take the blame. Say that he made mistakes that cost the team. That he needs to get better, and specifically talk about the ways. Instead, he tried to put the blame on nobody. That maybe works when you lose some tough games that were well played (last year's Big East Tournament Championship game comes to mind), but when there were glaring problems... Well somebody was to blame, and if it wasn't the players...

For the most absurd thing to read, we can look to Kentucky where some locals wonder if Eastern Kentucky's head coach Travis Ford may be becoming a hot coaching commodity after the effort in the first round against Kentucky. And where do they wonder he might be lured?
The effort and appearance in the prestigious tournament will enhance Eastern's chances in the field of recruiting, but the success could force schools looking for a head coach to take a closer look at Ford's resume.

Tennessee is looking for one, and Pittsburgh, which lost to Pacific Thursday. The Panthers might have their eyes on Ford, too. Pitt's athletics director - Jeff Long - hired Ford when he served in the same capacity at Eastern.

Ford is still young, but yet has the experience of rebuilding a program from the bottom up and led it to its first postseason appearance in 26 years.
And they say the internet is a breeding ground for dumb rumors?

So it's time to read the criticisms.

Joe Bendel has a good piece looking at the problems of the season and what comes next.

Dixon gets a chance next season to work with strong talent. If he struggles again, the scrutiny will continue to increase, particularly on the heels of a new ticket initiative that is asking fans to spend more money for seats at the Petersen Center.

His first mission should be finding a solid rotation and sticking with it. That means not putting Taft on the bench late in games (as he did at times this season) or yanking DeGroat for minor mistakes. His team needs continuity, and it is incumbent upon him to establish it on and off the court.

He also must find a way to re-establish the program reputation for being a physical team, one that intimidated opponents, particularly at home.

Otherwise, his sophomore jinx could last far beyond year No. 2.

Worth a full read.

Ron Cook takes his whacks at Dixon. His questions about use of the bench and figuring out who starts at small forward/three guard were perfectly legitimate. But then he shows how little he actually knows about basketball.

But how do you excuse Dixon for Pitt's lame offense?

Dixon doesn't teach offense. He rolls out the ball and his players play.

Pacific's Bob Thomason teaches offense. "I don't think if you haven't played us that you can guard all of the stuff we do if we take care of the ball," he said after the victory. Can you imagine Dixon ever saying that about Pitt? Or anyone else saying it?

West Virginia's John Beilein teaches offense. You saw it when the Mountaineers beat Creighton Thursday night in the NCAA tournament and when they made it to the Big East tournament championship game. They run plays and players break free for uncontested layups. When's the last time Pitt did that? The Brandin Knight era, maybe?

Pitt's offense too often came down to Carl Krauser trying to create off the dribble or hit a 3-point shot. He had a superb season, but, as he put it, "It's hard to be Superman." He got little help from Taft much of the season, no help from Chevon Troutman in the final two losses to Pacific and Villanova (3-of-15 shooting) and inconsistent help from shooting guards Antonio Graves and Ronald Ramon (24 of 81, 21 percent, in Pitt's final five losses, 13 of 25, 52 percent in its final two wins).

That's a load of crap. Pitt runs an inside game. The offense is predicated on perimeter passing, while looking to get it inside. If someone keeps the inside guys from getting a good look, you kick it back out and either take a perimeter shot, or pass around some more for another go round. That's why Troutman and Taft both finished in the top 25 nationally in field goal percentage -- they got good clean looks at the basket.

Would I like to see more cuts from the perimeter guys? Yes. I said that last year about Page. Graves started doing more of it late in the season. Krauser has always been willing to drive inside.

Here's something for the education of those who think Pitt doesn't have an offense. Pitt was one of the most efficient offenses in the country. What does that mean?

Offensive/Defensive Efficiency - This is the number of points scored or allowed per 100 possessions. There are only about 70 possessions for each team in the average college basketball game, so these numbers are higher that the points-per-game statistics you see used by the media.

Like tempo, I average each team's efficiency by game. The other way to do this would be to take a team's total points on the season and divide it by total possessions. But this gives some games more weight than others depending on the number of possessions in a particular contest. Also, I only use games involving two D1 teams.

The problem at the end of this season, as it was by the end of last season, was that Pitt's perimeter/guard production was not happening. When that your guards aren't scoring and you can't get the defenders to come out, you have defenses sagging inside. This means more defenders to grab rebounds and less chances at second chance points. It also means the openings to pass inside are fewer and fewer.

Both the examples he cited for running offenses, had two things Pitt didn't have: good, consistent perimeter shooters and a forward who could go inside and out. Last I checked, that goes to personnel not coaching.

In the Pitt News, there is an urge to defend Dixon but frustration over Dixon's "improved" comments.

There are so many questions to be asked. Yet they were rarely answered this past season, just avoided. Which is what Dixon did again on Thursday when he responded to the question of why his team failed to improve?"

There's no need for Dixon to avoid the facts. He is still a young coach. It's completely OK to have a sub-par season, and in my eyes excusable. Look back at the major turning point of this season. It was something that neither Dixon nor Pitt nor any fan could have prevented -- the loss of Yuri Demetris.

Prior to his departure, because of off-the-court issues, the team was a team. Stability was in the lineup and believe it or not, it had seniority -- as in someone who understood the Pitt defensive and offensive schemes. Demetris was pulling down 3.4 rebounds a game and had 18 steals and 33 assists in 14 games, which is a lot more than what his replacements managed.

After Demetris was deservedly dismissed from the team, Pitt fell to St. John's, and finished the season 8-7 without its senior guard.

My point is that Dixon was forced into a tough situation. Ever since Demetris was lost, this team has been in disarray and looking for help, and it never got what it needed.

With Chevon Troutman gone, and Taft and Carl Krauser each with one foot out the door to the NBA draft, Pitt could be returning only one weathered starter next year -- Antonio Graves.

A clean house, however, might be good for Dixon and the Panthers. Pitt has four highly recognized recruits in Levance Fields (5-foot-10-inch point guard), Tyrell Biggs (6-foot-8-inch power forward), Sam Young (6-foot-7-inch strong forward) and junior-college transfer Doyle Hudson (6-foot-8-inch power forward) coming in next season.

Freshmen Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin are both capable of being starters next year, and quality starters at that. The same applies for Aaron Gray, Levon Kendall and DeGroat.

With all the talent and potential coming to and remaining at Pitt, there is only one thing left to do as this disappointing season comes to a close: Admit there was no improvement and work on improving.

We can argue about the value Demetris actually provided, but when he was playing, there was at least some predictability to how the bench was (or wasn't) used.

Next year will be a difficult year for Pitt, even if Krauser and Taft come back. There will be so much talent in the Big East. Dixon will need to go out in the community and work the crowd. He is going to need some support for the difficult times.

In a comment, Steve asked:

If he was "good cop" to Howland's "bad cop," who was the bad cop the last two years?

If they don't have one, should get one.
A columnist down in Indiana, PA has a similar question.
Jamie Dixon, by many accounts, is a good man who is well liked by his players. When Ben Howland left the University of Pittsburgh to accept the head coaching job at UCLA, the players he left behind made no secret their desire that Pitt promote Dixon, who had been Howland's top assistant.
Being a likeable guy is a good quality if you're selling products, trying to make friends in a new community or searching for your soul mate.

It might not be so good if you're a Division I basketball coach.

This especially holds true if you are an assistant who has been tabbed to replace a successful head coach.

It seems as if the assistant coach acts as the liaison between the head coach and the players.

When it comes time to discipline, that is up to the head coach. In that situation he's like the bad cop.

The good cop, a.k.a. top assistant, often reassures the players that all is fine. He develops a rapport with the players, who come to respect and admire him.

It's not to say that Dixon can never become a great coach at the collegiate level. It is to say, however, that a major college sports team often is asking for trouble when it promotes from within a top assistant to head coach.

The top assistant sometimes is so used to being close to the players that he becomes uncomfortable with having to get tough when the going gets tough.

This season was as good a time as any for Dixon to get tough.
Dixon will have to show that he can be tough with his players when all turns sour. Or else he might not have a future in Pittsburgh.
It's not that I disagree with this. It's that no one knows what Dixon says to the players. Dixon, clearly, is not going to publicly rip players. There have been reports that when a bench player isn't giving a good effort in practice, he doesn't get playing time. We saw Taft on the bench for long stretches when he played uninspired. Because Dixon won't say anything or explain why a particular player never got on the floor other than in vague coach-speak responses it frustrates. It wasn't an issue last year, when Pitt was always winning. Heck, it wasn't much of an issue until the 3 game slide in February.

To some degree, it's like Bill Belicheck coaching the Browns versus coaching New England. The fans in New England don't care about not being clued in to things since they are winning. So, the press -- who is more likely frustrated doesn't get much mileage out of complaining about a lack of information. In Cleveland, the team sucked, and there was no explanation. Then, you want more info. You want to understand.

Ultimately, Dixon has two choices if he wants to keep everything quiet and not ever discuss the players and his decisions. He has to keep winning, or he better be prepared to be a career assistant. Otherwise, he has to start talking a little more candidly to the press and the public.

Spring Practice: Pads and Blocking 

The pads come tomorrow. The coaches were ready from get go, now the players are itching to go at each other.

But by the time the workout yesterday reached the later stages, with the offense and defense lining up against each other, the players seemed ready for the next challenge.

That's when the taunting began. It wasn't so much confrontational -- although there was one minor altercation -- as it was about this message: Let's move on to full contact and see how things shake out.

That happens tomorrow in the Panthers' next practice, when they will be allowed by NCAA rules to don pads and go full speed.

"Within the front seven, it will be a thousand times more physical, and after we run a route or catch a pass, it's going to be more physical," senior tight end Erik Gill said.

Judging from yesterday, it could be more vocal, too.

"They thrive on taunting us and getting in our heads," junior receiver Greg Lee said of the defense.

Pitt will practice tomorrow and Thursday before getting a week-long break for Easter.

"The enthusiasm was good, but it's time to put the pads.
One of the most important thing about Spring Practice -- that nobody gets hurt. Last spring, injuries wrecked the receiving corp and by extension the kick and punt return game. Last spring Pitt lost Brockenbrough and Allen for the season.

Tight Ends Coach and Recruiting Coordinator, Greg Gattuso, was stressing blocking in the first couple of practices.

"It's pretty simple: They're not going to play if they don't block," Gattuso said of Pitt's talented tight ends. "When we get good at blocking, then we'll go out and catch.

"We have a lot of talent to catch the ball, but blocking is all about heart and soul."

Darrell Strong gets a piece about working at tight end. Looks like he's back there after coming to Pitt to try QB then moving to TE then to WR. Tight End was what other schools wanted him to play when he was recruited. Small correction to the article, though, Strong is a regular Sophomore. Not a "redshirt." He was a true freshman last year, and played in a couple of games.

The most important thing learned at spring practice: kicker, Josh "Sunshine" Cummings cut his hair short.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Quick Tourney Notes 

I have trouble seeing how North Carolina doesn't get to the Final Four at this point. The field was completely plowed for them. Unless 'Nova pulls the upset. I don't see NC St. or Wisconsin being able to stop them. Can't believe the way UConn gakked in the second half. That totally screwed my bracket.

A Duke-Kentucky match-up looks inevitable in the Elite Eight, but then most people thought that about a Kansas-UNC meeting as well.

Does anyone really have great confidence in who's coming out of the Albuquerque Region? Louisville struggled with Louisiana-Lafayette then pounded Georgia Tech. WVU-Texas Tech? I would say the 'Eers, but who knows? Maybe Washington will make it.

I still like Illinois in their region. That is the only one where the top 3 seeds survived.

The Big East doesn't look so good after the first weekend. Only 2 teams left. Same for the Big 12 (OK St. and Texas Tech) and the Pac-10 (Washington and Arizona). The Big 11 surprised everyone with 3 (Illinois, Wisconsin and Mich. St.) -- two teams helped by stunning first round upsets. The SEC only has Kentucky still standing. Conference USA still has Louisville. Yes, the ACC has 3.

Every year, the Tournament just seems stranger and stranger.

Spring Practice Reports, Meaningless Fun 

I'm sure a lot of important things are accomplished in the spring practices, especially with a new head coach and new coaches on offense: setting the depth chart, seeing the players in action, figuring out what needs work, and so on. But at the same time, I'd say the most important thing accomplished in Pitt's 2005 Spring Practice is purely publicity. And it worked. While the practice wasn't open to the public, it was open to the press and some others.
Among those who watched practice were Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg, athletic director Jeff Long, former coach Johnny Majors and a large group of high school coaches, prospective recruits and parents.
And they got a show from Coach Wannstedt.
The first drill of the first spring practice of the Dave Wannstedt era was field-goal kicking. There was the new Pitt football coach, jumping in, demonstrating, instructing.

A few minutes later, Wannstedt was doing the same with another special-teams group. Then, it was the running backs. He made his way to the far corner of the field to visit the offensive linemen, then worked his way back down the other side.

When the team broke from individual position drills and ran live plays, Wannstedt continued to be involved. He gave various players pointers. He halted plays when the Panthers weren't lined up properly. He stood on the edge of the huddles -- offensive and defensive -- and listened.

At the end of the two-hour session at the indoor practice facility on the South Side, Wannstedt's eyes shone, and he looked fresh enough to do it all over again.

Pardon any unintended cynicism on my part. I believe Wannstedt to be sincere. I'm duly impressed, and quite happy by his enthusiasm. His energy seemed quite infectious.

The energy surrounding Pitt's first spring practice was unmistakable, especially to junior Tyler Palko, who is working on learning a new offense as he prepares for his second season as the starting quarterback.

"Sometimes, change rejuvenates people," Palko said. "The guys have come in and they have a little bit extra pep to their steps. They're really enthusiastic. The coaching staff has done a great job of keeping the players enthusiastic about the change."

Added Spencer: "Since I've been here, this is the most intense (practice) that I can remember. Guys want to win coming off that Fiesta Bowl loss. We still have a sour taste in our mouth."

Even the AP report seemed upbeat.

Despite the way they ended last season -- with a blowout loss to Utah in the Fiesta Bowl to finish 8-4 and controversy surrounding Harris and his eventual move to Stanford -- the Panthers had an inspiring first workout in front of a large media group, high school recruits and boosters.

"We knew it would be very spirited, but the only negative was that we didn't have pads on," Wannstedt said. "You've got to come out here with these shorts on, and here we are on our first day.

"We'd love to have a scrimmage and bring officials in. But we have to go two days in shorts. Then, on Tuesday, we can wear pads. The enthusiasm will still be there, but it'll be a little different."

A lot of attention was paid to the change to the offense and how Palko is dealing with new offensive coordinator, Matt Cavanaugh.

"We were 105th in rushing last year," Palko said. "I'm not saying we need to be No. 1 in rushing, but we need to get a little better.''

Palko had an eight-year relationship with Harris that ended after last season when the veteran coach could not get a contract extension at Pitt and made a lateral move to Stanford near his hometown. So, it will be interesting to see how the quarterback works with Cavanaugh. If first impressions and comments are an indication, the two should do just fine.

"I love him to death, and he's really helped me a lot,'' Palko said. "He's played the position in college. He played here under all that pressure and won a national championship. ... He's really helped me out so far, and I'm really excited about how we've gotten along and progressed as a player and coach.

Cavanaugh was just as effusive in praising Palko.

"(Palko) has been excellent,'' Cavanaugh said. "He's someone who has a great work ethic, and he has one goal in mind: he wants to win a national championship, and he's sincere about it. You hear some players talk like that, but I get a sense that he really means it."

'I think we're off to a good start. ... And that's all you can ask for at this point.''
What? Was anyone expecting them not to be speaking lovingly about their relationship at this point? It's no secret that Pitt will be seeking a more balanced offensive attack.

One other thing, Pitt put up video of Coach Wannstedt's press conference from Thursday. Here's hoping they do more of that.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

A Couple More Basketball Notes 

A nice summary of Troutman and McCarroll's careers at Pitt. Both will be missed.

Bendel speculates that Taft might decide to wait a year if a whole raft of high schoolers and college freshmen and sophomores try to jump to the NBA ahead of an expected age cap of 20 years. I'm not buying it. Everyone thinks Taft is a lottery pick no matter how many kids come out.

In the weekly Q&A with Fittipaldo (apparently posted the morning of Pitt's loss to Pacific), he points out that if Krauser and Taft go, the leading returning scorer on the team will be Graves. If so, a .500 season in the Big East would be about the best to be hoped in the centennial of Pitt basketball.

Finally, some more from Coach Dixon trying to spin and cover for his players.

The stoic second-year coach got hit with a barrage of questions from the media, and he tried to put a positive spin on each and every one of his answers. Not once did he buy into theories suggesting that the Panthers had underachieved or had a disappointing season. And, he wanted no parts of a conversation dealing with the drop-off in play by some of his younger players, even though freshman guard Ronald Ramon and sophomore forward Levon Kendall were clearly struggling by seasons end.

"We had a great year and were proud of what these guys accomplished," Dixon said. "We're a young team that improved as the year went on. We got better."

"Every team comes into the season with big hopes every year, throughout the country," he said. "And we had a great year. We won a whole lot of games (10) in a very good league (Big East). The team got better, we were very young. "

Perhaps Dixon is a man who is strong in his convictions and had no problem with the way 2004-05 ended. Maybe he saw enough positives in young players like Ramon, freshman guard Keith Benjamin, sophomore center Aaron Gray, sophomore guard Antonio Graves and Kendall that he is legitimately excited about their progress and the future of the program.

Or, it could be that he chose to avoid discussing his teams struggles in a public format. Only he knows for sure, but this much is certain: Most Pitt players openly said after Thursday's loss that the season was a disappointment and most fans on talk radio echoed those sentiments 24 hours later.

I'm praying it was the latter. I'm reasonably sure of it, because Dixon in his 2 years as head coach has not really done any public calling out of his players. He has protected and shielded them. It's part of why they like him. They know he has their backs.

Should be an interesting off-season for the b-ball program and the players

Spring Drills Get Underway 

Spring Drills begin at 10:30. The spring practices will be more about finding out who is buying into the new regime right now, and who needs work. At least that is the subtext I find in the whole, "we have no depth chart and every position is up for grabs" stance taken by Coach Wannstedt. I'm not disagreeing with it, I'm just giving my interperetation.

Players will be learning new things, especially when it comes to the redesigned offense. Some will be at new positions as Wannstedt tries to add speed to the defense, shift to a run-first philosophy on offense and retool the offensive line.

"We will move at a fairly fast pace, and I think we can," Wannstedt said yesterday at a news conference.
Nine starters return on offense. So, although Wannstedt has opened all positions, there could be minimal movement. One area in flux is the line, where senior Charles Spencer, who moved from defense a year ago, will switch from left guard to left tackle to replace Rob Petitti, an All-Big East player.

Wannstedt made it clear that position changes could be abandoned or added at any time.The biggest shift on defense will find senior Thomas Smith sliding inside from defensive end to tackle.

Every defensive move will be geared primarily to speed, even at the expense of size.

"We could have ends moving to tackle, linebackers moving to end," Wannstedt said.

Although the offensive staff is new and all the defensive assistants were retained, Wannstedt has spent most of his preparation time with the defense. That's because he has a lot of trust in Cavanaugh, and, in part, because Wannstedt's coaching background is on defense and he wanted to put his mark there by tweaking things.

Speed, especially on defense, is the key point of emphasis for Coach Wannstedt.

And more than anything this spring, Wannstedt wants to turn Pitt's defense into a play-making machine.

"You've seen the style of defense that I've played the past 15 years -- they've always been big-play defenses," Wannstedt said. "My teams have given up some size to play fast. Not many teams can play with a 5-10 1/2, 235-pound middle linebacker like Zach Thomas or Jason Taylor as a 225-pound defensive end. Those guys wouldn't be able to play in most systems."

In Pitt's slightly altered defensive system, a lack of size won't keep potential play-makers off the field. Such is likely the thinking behind moving from fullback to defensive end former Kiski Area standout Chris McKillop, a 6-2, 240-pound special-teams letter-winner last season.

See, not only can McKillop go but he has a knack for finding ball-carriers.

"Defensively, I really wanted to make changes, but keep the terminology similar to what the players have been used to (under defensive coordinator Paul Rhodes)," Wannstedt said. "They had a complete defensive package here and now it's a matter of looking at it and finding out what we're going to be."

In a word: faster.

I think, the defense will show much improvement. Not just from Coach Wannstedt's presence, but because the young secondary should be more improved, conditioned and (hopefully) able to play tighter coverage.

The unasked question is what happens with the offense? Yes, an emphasis on the running game will be important. But the offensive line was so bad last year, and now the best player from the line has graduated. So what happens with the line?

Then there is the offensive coordinator, Matt Cavanaugh. Wannstedt has admitted he isn't doing much on the offensive side, since he knows and trusts Cavanaugh so well. In that respect, he's put all the pressure on Cavanaugh not to let the offense take a step backward. Fair or not, Cavanugh comes in to the job with a need to repair his reputation. He was the fall guy in Baltimore for the Ravens offense.

Yes, I know they had no quality #1 or much of a #2 receiving threat. The QB situation was hardly positive. And I know they had a solid line and great running back. You can say that Redman, Wright, Dilfer and the host of other stiffs who they stuck at QB would be too much for anyone to create a high powered offense, and I won't disagree. And since their head coach Brian Billick came there as an "offensive genius" there should be more blame put on him. Again, I'm not disagreeing. Cavanaugh was still the scapegoat. There's the issue of developing Kyle Boller, who everyone gives credit to Jim Fassel for making any progress this season.

All I'm saying, is that if the offense doesn't perform at near the levels seen by the team last October and November, then Cavanaugh will be getting the blame.

There's definitely more people paying attention to Pitt football right now. There's this AP story on spring drills about to get underway. Even one of the bastions of Penn State-centric football coverage, the Harrisburg Patriot-News has a story.

"I think we can do a lot on offense to help our quarterbacks and to help Tyler from the standpoint of the play-action package and our running game," Wannstedt said. "If we do them correctly we can help a quarterback like Tyler who's a movement quarterback.

"[Palko] makes a lot of plays on his feet and has a great ability to make plays on the move. And we need to make sure that we're doing enough things within the system to give him a chance to do things by design. So, we can put in plays to complement his ability."

Wannstedt mentioned a plus-10 turnover ratio and 46.7 penalty yards per game -- both among the nation's best -- as the most positive points from last season, but added that Pitt's run defense, run offense, pass defense, punt returns and kickoff returns had a lot of room for improvement. But that made it all the more exciting to prepare for this season.
You know its almost 6 months to the first game, and I'm already feeling excited.

Can I Get A Mulligan? 

A simple throwaway line, I'd like to have back.
The real upsets will start on Saturday. That's when the anguished cries of brackets being ruined truly happen.
Then a 3 and a 4 seed go down tonight. Syracuse blew it in OT -- Gerry McNamara played the worst game of his life. Then Kansas gave it up to Bucknell. I think we all remember Bucknell.

Suddenly Pitt's loss doesn't seem so tragic. Not to mention Syracuse and Kansas going down, kind of puts the Pitt collapse in perspective. I mean, as a 9 seed, Pitt would have been a minor miracle getting to the Sweet 16. Kansas and Syracuse were bracket buster games.

Can you imagine the anguish of Jayhawk and Orange fans to see their teams lose to double digit seeds?

Friday, March 18, 2005

Spring Drills To Start 

We've got a transcript of the Dave Wannstedt press conference ahead of Spring Drills kicking off on Saturday.
Today we obviously know spring practice tomorrow, something that we go through the recruiting part and everything else that is involved with college football, the academics and the off season program, the running and the lifting which is all part of it, but really the determining factor as to what type of football team we are going to have and how it is going to happen will start tomorrow. This is an exciting time. I am truly excited to just get out there and see our players moving around, even though we have been watching a lot of film on them. We have watched a lot of the breakdown tapes and so forth; I want to see it first hand. I want to see the guy go out there and make a great catch. I want to see the guy go out there and block somebody. I'll sleep better. Our guys have done a great job. Our coaches have done a fantastic job within the time restraints that we have, as far as being able to meet with a player prior to spring practice, to somewhat get the offense and defense system, the changes, the newness introduced. I think they have done a fantastic job. Our players have done a great job preparing themselves for spring practice. I think that they know that there is going to be more competition.
Okay, who's ready to run through a brick wall for the guy?

I guess we can look at the bright side to the disappointing ends to the football and then basketball season. The other seemed to be right there to pick us up and raise spirits and hopes.

And on the recruiting front, this nugget from Cleveland.
After a recent, impressive visit with University of Pittsburgh football head coach Dave Wannstedt, St. Edward High lineman Joe Thomas has moved Pitt up high on his list of potential schools.
Couldn't find anything on the recruiting sites on this offensive lineman. Back in October, though, Thomas was cited by the Cleveland Plain Dealer H.S. football writer as one of the rising football stars in the area.

Day 1, Round 1-- Recap 

Not the best start for the Tournament. Most of the games weren't that good. There were some competitive halfs that made people nervous -- Niagara, Chattanooga, Utah St. and even Farleigh-Dickinson -- but most of the games were predictable.

Even the upsets -- Alabama getting bounced. Same with LSU. (The SEC is not off to a good start.) Those were the games many weren't surprised to be upsets.

There were a few gems. The Utah-UTEP had some drama. The Nevada-Texas game was pretty good. Even Winthrop-Gonzaga provided drama until the last 2 minutes. And the final game of the night, WVU-Creighton was the best of the day.

Only 2 lower seeds lost (I don't count 9 beating an 8 an upset or really a lower seeding). The real upsets will start on Saturday. That's when the anguished cries of brackets being ruined truly happen.

The PSB Bracket 

Well, nobody is perfect through the first day. Looks like everyone had Pitt at least beating Pacific. Meaningless for most to project at this point. You really can't start shaking things out until after Sunday, when people see how many of their Sweet 16 teams remain.

Post-Tournament Exit and Beyond 

There isn't much to take away as positive to the season ending loss.
Equally spaced along a row of benches inside the locker room, the Pitt Panthers, all of them, faced their lockers, forearms rested on thighs, with their heads between their knees. The silence was deafening.

This is where it ended, long before any of them thought it would, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. A team filled with so much promise five months ago when the season began, Pitt bowed out with a whimper yesterday, losing to Pacific, 79-71.
Disbelief shrouded the Panthers, who had advanced to the third round the past three seasons. They spoke openly about this team being the most talented of the bunch and the one that finally could reach the Final Four.

"It really hurts," said point guard Carl Krauser, who led Pitt with 27 points. "We kind of took a step back this season. It's one-and-done. I never had this feeling here at Pitt."

Where to start with this one? Pitt lost it in a myriad of ways: porous defense, wretched outside shooting, a slow start. And get this, being overpowered by the European-style, West-coasters inside.

Pacific outrebounded Pitt, 35-30, and had the better of the play in the post. The Tigers were the third opponent to outrebound the Panthers this season. Four Pacific players scored in double figures. Forward Christian Maraker and guard David Doubley scored 17 points apiece, guard Mike Webb had 15 and center Guillaume Yango 12. Pacific dissected Pitt's defense and shot 47 percent from the field, 58 percent in the first half when the Tigers jumped to a 15-point lead.

You just don't go into the offseason feeling real good after losing like this.

Judging by the way Pitt came out in the first half, you would think they never got the memo that the NCAA is a one-and-done tournament. They still seem to be struggling with that.
This was a St. Patrick's Day Massacre for the Pitt program, an occasion that elicited tears and torment after a biting loss to Pacific, 79-71, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

"I don't know if I want to cry or punch somebody," sophomore center Chris Taft said.

"Can you believe it? It's really over for us." freshman guard Keith Benjamin said. "We weren't expecting this at all."

No, the Panthers were expecting to go to the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year and put to rest any questions about their inconsistent regular season. They also hoped to back up a preseason proclamation by Taft and point guard Carl Krauser of "National Championship or bust."

But 2004-05 ended far from St. Louis (site of the Final Four), with the Panthers dropping five of their final seven games and finishing with a 20-9 record. Senior forward Chevon Troutman, playing his last game at Pitt, aptly set the tone for the dismal afternoon, missing his first four shots and getting benched by coach Jamie Dixon.

Things slowly deteriorated from there.
Pacific moves on to the round of 32 to play No. 1 seed Washington, while the Panthers enter an offseason that is filled with question marks. Will Krauser and Taft return next season? Can starting shooting guard Antonio Graves (12 points) become a high-level Big East player? Can underclassmen Ronald Ramon (no points, 0-for-5 from the field), Levon Kendall (no points), Benjamin (seven) and Aaron Gray (no points) carry Pitt forward? Or, did the program peak with the three consecutive Sweet 16 berths?

Second-year Jamie Dixon said afterward that "we've improved," even though the results said otherwise in 2004-05.

That "improved" comment is going to haunt Dixon for a while. Joe Starkey goes after Dixon for that, and a host of other things.

In the wake of Pitt's season-ending, 79-71 loss to Pacific on Thursday, coach Jamie Dixon was asked why his team never improved.

It seemed like a reasonable question, considering the Panthers lost five of their final seven games, saved their worst two games for last and never found a way to solve their major problem -- defending the perimeter.

Pacific became the eighth team to shred the Panthers for 10 or more 3-pointers, making 10 of 20.

"Actually, I thought we did get better," Dixon said. "I thought we improved throughout the year. We had two very good wins just two games ago."
"I would definitely say our team improved throughout the year," he said. "I don't think we played as well as we could have today, but our young kids got better. Keith (Benjamin) got better. Ronald (Ramon) got better. Antonio (Graves) got better. Chris (Taft) got better. We had a great season."

Dixon cannot believe that.
Maybe the real question is whether Dixon has improved. It's hard to argue in his favor when the players he put on the floor yesterday left their feet at simple ball fakes, failed to block out, tossed up ill-advised shots (hello, Chevy Troutman 3-point attempt that clanks off the backboard) and threw the ball away regularly.

And have you ever seen a more ineffective press?

Dixon stubbornly left senior Mark McCarroll in the starting lineup, even though McCarroll has contributed very little (nothing yesterday in nine minutes).

Where was John DeGroat on a day when Pitt had one of his worst efforts on the offensive boards?

I think we all know that Dixon was trying to protect his players and coaches, but then he needs to take responsibility for the loss. There was no sense of that. It seemed that the entire team, top down, just seemed stunned that they lost -- again. That there was nothing they could do about it.

Ron Cook lauds Krauser while taking shots at Dixon.

At least Carl Krauser was man enough to face the harsh truth after Pitt went out meekly in the first round of the NCAA tournament yesterday. At the same time coach Jamie Dixon was talking absolute nonsense about the Panthers improving throughout the season and having a great year, Krauser was putting the 79-71 loss to Pacific in its proper, if painful, perspective.

"We definitely underachieved. This is a big step back for us."
Krauser has to take his share of the blame, an odd thing to say about a player who scored 27 points. But Krauser clearly wasn't ready for the 12:40 start. Neither was Chevon Troutman, who -- there is no other way to put it -- played as if he had been out all night chasing the Boise State women gymnasts.

Let me pause here for an observation. There's a real hesitancy on most parties, and I'll include myself, to direct too much criticism at Troutman. Everyone likes Troutman. They see the effort, the fact that he is maxing out his potential. How generally solid his game is. How much he has overcome, personally. He seems to be everyone's favorite player. We want him to do well, and hate to have to say how bad he's been playing. How much blame he has to shoulder for the loss. I mean, there were moments in the first half when I thought maybe Kendall and DeGroat should be in there at the forward spots.

In the wake of the loss, Taft and Krauser are going to be considering their options. I don't think there is any question that Taft goes pro. Despite his season, his draft stock hasn't really changed. He is still considered a likely lottery pick based on his potential alone. Coming back won't really change that. It would benefit Pitt and give him more time to develop his game, but it wouldn't result in much of a difference in his draft status.

Krauser, a partial qualifier who must graduate from Pitt this year in order be eligible next season, knows that jumping to the NBA can be risky. He pointed to former St. John's guard Omar Cook, who declared after his freshman season and was taken in the second round by the Orlando Magic in 2001. Cook has been in and out of NBA camps, but has struggled to make a career of it.

"I'm still undecided," said Krauser. "I don't know what to do, because both options are going to affect my life. If I make the wrong decision, I could be out there struggling like other guys, like Omar Cook and those guys. I have to make the right decision - and I know I can play at the next level -- but I have to sit down and think about. I really haven't done that yet because I didn't want anything to distract me this year."

I don't think Krauser has looked too seriously at the NBA draft yet. If he has, and he is jumps, he is delusional. The 2005 draft for point guards looks to be ridiculously deep. At best he would be a late 2nd rounder, and only because some GM fell in love with him. Krauser's best served by going to some camps and seeing how he compares on a broader level. There's plenty he can learn.

Players also have the option of receiving a written evaluation from the NBA undergraduate advisory committee. The committee is chaired by Stu Jackson, the NBA's vice president of basketball operations. Jackson, NBA scouting director Marty Blake and eight general managers comprise the committee and write an evaluation for a player who is considering the draft.

Players are even allowed to call NBA general managers to ask about their draft status. This step is rarely taken, though, as players are unaware that it's within NCAA rules.

Drifting back to the Pacific game. Pitt's inability to consistently drain 3 pointers over the last 7 games (losing 5) has to be considered part of the problem. During that stretch, they were barely at 30%. Remember in early January, when Pitt had one of the best 3-point shooting percentages in the country?

You have to wonder about whether Ramon will need surgery on the shoulder, or just time to let it heal. And you have to hope he is mentally strong enough to shake off the extended slump.

In his final eight games this season, Ramon was 6 of 34 (17.6 percent) from 3-point range and did not hit more than one 3-pointer in any of those games. He reached double figures only once in the final 15 games.
Benjamin had a good game coming off the bench, but he was the only one.

Lots of questions going into this offseason.

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