Panthers’ promising season ends on familiar note

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PITTSBURGH – Jamie Dixon insists he’s not going anywhere. The same goes for Steven Adams.


After another March disappointment for Pitt, it’s a start.


The Panthers (24-9) bounced back from a miserable 2011-12 season to get back into the thick of the Big East, but the rousing send-off Dixon and company had in mind before moving to the ACC never materialized.


Pitt rallied from a slow start to finish 12-6 in the final incarnation of the Big East before it breaks up. But the Panthers failed to win a game in the conference tournament for the third time in four years. Things didn’t get any better in the NCAA tournament, when ninth-seeded Wichita State had its way in the second half of a 73-55 romp in the second round Thursday.


Not exactly a swan song to sing about.


“We just simply weren’t the right way from start to finish,” Dixon said.


A rarity for a team that for long stretches played better than the sum of its parts. The Panthers stuck with a 10-man rotation all season, relying largely on unselfish play and solid defense to handle more talented opponents. Every Pitt player averaged at least 12 minutes a game, and no Panther averaged more than 11.5 points.


Senior point guard Tray Woodall returned from an injury marred junior year to become the unquestioned leader of a team that featured five new players, including impact freshmen in the blossoming Adams, steady point guard James Robinson and raw talent Durand Johnson.


Adams started slowly while learning to adapt to the more physical play in the United States compared to his native New Zealand. The 7-footer was arguably Pitt’s best player by March. He scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against the Shockers, practically keeping the Panthers in it until the bottom fell out in the final 5 minutes.


Considered a potential “one-and-done” player when he arrived on campus, Adams remains a project offensively and said in the locker room on Thursday he has no plans to declare for the NBA draft.


If he sticks around, Pitt should have little trouble adapting to life in the ACC. Having familiar faces around will certainly help. Lamar Patterson, J.J. Moore, Cam Wright, Trey Zeigler and Talib Zanna also will be back.


Dixon, too, apparently. Despite growing speculation the California native is the top choice for the vacant job at USC, Dixon downplayed the idea of leaving, calling it just typical chatter this time of year.


When pressed on if he planned to be back at Pittsburgh moments after his 10th season as head coach ended, Dixon nodded to a distraught Woodall and responded “that’s the farthest thing from my mind.”


While his team won’t be playing this weekend, Dixon will still be in the tournament. He agreed Friday to serve as a guest studio analyst for CBS.


Whenever he gets back to his regular job, Dixon’s toughest task will be finding ways to come through when things get tight. Pitt went just 5-7 in games decided by less than 10 points and there were times when the offense just disappeared.


Zanna appeared on the verge of a breakout season in December, dominating games against inferior competition. He scored in double figures 10 times in Pitt’s first 14 games but did it only four more times the rest of the year.


Zanna would certainly benefit from another season paired alongside Adams, and though the Panthers will find it difficult to replace Woodall’s shotmaking, they already have their next floor general in Robinson. Thrust into the starting lineup because of his defensive tenacity, Robinson proved to have a good head on his shoulders and a flair for the dramatic. He hit two big 3-pointers in a win over Syracuse in February and had an assist: turnover ratio of nearly 3-to-1.


After failing to make the NCAAs for the first time in more than a decade in 2012, Pitt recovered to look like its usual self at times. Dixon doesn’t want the disappointing end to mar the bigger picture: Pitt is on the way back.


In the despondent locker room Dixon challenged his players to start moving forward. It’s the only way he knows how to approach things.


“Our first thing was talking to those (seniors) and thanking them for all they have done for (their careers),” Dixon said. “But for our other guys returning it’s something we’ve got to learn from.”


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