Earlier this summer I talked with Mount St. Mary's new head coach, Jamion Christian, about his inaugural season coaching his alma mater. Now that we will be live and in color covering their season opener against Pittsburgh from press row, we decided to chat with Anson Whaley of SBN's Cardiac Hill - stepping over on the enemy sideline to see things from their point of view.
Mid-Major Madness: Ashton Gibbs was a big part of the Panthers' success (and sometimes lack of it) during his time at Pitt - how does the team adjust to his absence now?
Anson Whaley: Many (including myself) think the team will actually be better off. In addition to Gibbs having a bit of a down season last year shooting the ball, the offense doesn't have to revolve around him as much. There was a lot of pressure on him to be 'the guy' last year and because of that, other players faded into the background a little.
We saw a few guys (Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore, in particular) emerge as the year went on, and the team should be pretty balanced this year. There's also enough offensive firepower with guys like Tray Woodall, Trey Zeigler, Patterson, Moore, and even true freshman Steven Adams (if he improves a bit) that should be able to more than cover Gibbs' productivity.
MMM: How do you think the two notable additions ( Central Michigan transfer Trey Ziegler and freshman Steven Adams) fit into this season's scheme?
AW: Both were front runners to start, but it looks as if (for right now, anyway), Adams is the only one that will. Zeigler has come off of the bench in Pitt's first two exhibition games and if he's able to fit into the offense, I expect him to be a good contributor. He doesn't have to do as much as he did at Central Michigan and that should mean he's more relaxed and can get some open looks.
Since Adams has started gaining recognition, I've always argued that his offensive game is secondary to what he can provide on defense and through his rebounding. That played out in the two preseason contests as he's been a good defender and rebounder, but his offensive game hasn't been quite there yet. By the end of the season, he's a guy that should be capable of putting up numbers that are close to double doubles, assuming he improves as the year goes on.
Also, don't sleep on freshman James Robinson, who is (for now, anyway) joining Adams as a starter. He's a true point guard that will help take the load off of Woodall.
MMM: How do the Panthers avoid a down year like last year, which goes down as easily the worst during Jamie Dixon's tenure? Specifically, how do they avoid two losing streaks of eight and five games, respectively?
AW: Last year the team just endured a ton of bad breaks in my mind. Woodall was looking like an All Big East player and was on a pace (or close to it) to break Pitt's single season assist record, but then suffered an injury and wasn't the same the rest of the year after missing many games.
For whatever reason, Ashton Gibbs' shot completely disappeared - he went from making 46% of his field goals and 49% of his three-pointers as a junior to only connecting on 38% of his field goals and 35% of his long-range attempts as a senior. And as was acknowledged later, senior Nasir Robinson was basically playing in pain for much of the season. Because of some injuries, including Woodall's, Pitt was forced to play four freshmen a good bit...and that's not even addressing the Khem Birch transfer debacle, which caused chemistry issues one would think.
Add it all up and it was a recipe for disaster. This year, the team is older and while they're relying on a few freshmen, the core of last year's squad is mostly back. I don't know just how far this team can go, but they should be better than last season.
MMM: Is there any weakness you see with this year's squad, at least early on, that might cause them to let Mount St. Marys hang around a little too long in this contest?
AW: Pitt really got off to a slow start in their first exhibition game against Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and it was mostly due to bad shooting and simply being out-hustled. A slow start against Mount St. Mary's wouldn't surprise me, and Pitt has had problems before with letting teams hang around.
The other thing to keep in mind is that this team is still trying to gel. They've got three new starters and also Zeigler coming off the bench. There's talent here, but it could take a good 1/3 of the season before they're done learning how to click as a team.