At 11-3, Pitt isn't at risk of missing the NCAA tournament just yet, but with three losses already, the thought is starting to creep into minds. The question was posed over at SB Nation's Pitt blog, Cardiac Hill, and as of Thursday night, one-third of poll respondents think this is the year Pitt's tournament streak is snapped.
It's not necessarily the three losses that are cause for alarm - rather, who they've come against.
Pitt dropped not one, but two non-conference home games this year, against Long Beach State and Wagner. Coming into this season, they'd only lost one (to Bucknell) in the entire history of the Petersen Events Center. The Panthers also were routed earlier this week at Notre Dame in their first Big East game of the season. All three teams are decent squads, but heading into the season, there was no reason to think Pitt wouldn't and shouldn't be favored to have won all three.
So what's the issue with this year's team? Here are five reasons they're struggling so much.
5. J.J. Moore not stepping up - Moore entered the season as one of the players expected to step up offensively. He's got the talent - that much is clear. In the second game of his career, he scored 19 points in only 19 minutes as a true freshman last year against North Florida. Moore hasn't been terrible this season, but he hasn't provided the offensive spark that most probably believed he could with added minutes. He's been held scoreless in three games this season and has failed to score more than five points in seven of the 13 games in which he's played. The bottom line is that Pitt needs more from Moore.
4. Youth - While Pitt's starting lineup is made up of almost entirely upperclassmen with Tray Woodall back, the bench is extremely young. The reserves are all freshmen and sophomores and that's been part of the reason it hasn't always produced. Jamie Dixon may have had younger teams, but it's safe to say that he hasn't had one with so many young players in key roles, as well. Dixon has at times started two freshmen earlier this season and literally half the team is getting on-the-job training.
3. Travon Woodall injury - The Panthers won the first five games after Woodall's injury, but certainly could have used his offense in the ugly 59-54 loss to Wagner. And while he played against Notre Dame, he was clearly rusty, as he was held scoreless in the game, shooting 0-5 from the field. The other thing to take into account is the fact that Pitt missed out on building up some key chemistry in the games he missed. This is Woodall's first season as a full-time starter and with so many young players on the team, he'll still be getting used to them and vice versa for a good part of the conference season.
2. Khem Birch's transfer - Go ahead, scoff at Birch's modest numbers (4.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game), but his presence is certainly being missed. Not only did Birch produce some good games (23 points, 22 rebounds, and nine blocks against Penn and Robert Morris), but his loss really hurt the team in terms of depth. His presence seemed to push Dante Taylor to play better to earn minutes, but now Pitt is extremely thin at center. Behind Taylor, Jamie Dixon is now forced to play true freshman Malcolm Gilbert and give Talib Zanna more minutes. Having Birch around gave Dixon another option that he doesn't have anymore.
1. Ashton Gibbs - Gibbs clearly hasn't been the same player he was last season and you can likely chalk some of that up to minutes played. Through only 14 games, he's played at least 35 minutes nine times. Last year, he played that much only ten games throughout the entire season. Gibbs was also forced to play some point guard while Woodall was out and he simply can't focus on getting open and shooting nearly as much when that happens. Whatever the reason, Gibbs is really struggling. He's shooting only 38 percent from the field as opposed to 47 percent last season and he's making only 36 percent of his three-pointers against 49 percent in 2010-11. Those 2011-12 numbers aren't only subpar, they're career lows.
There's plenty of time for Pitt to get better this year, but if they aren't able to make some adjustments, the Panthers could be facing another early exit from the NCAA's ... if they get there.