First, can you tell readers a bit about Cardiac Hill – what’s in store for readers in 2014 and what you’re looking forward to covering?
I started the site back in 2008 as mostly a place for me to vent after frustrating losses and such, and was approached by SB Nation to move the blog there in 2011. The site started out mostly as me commenting on games and news links. These days, we’ve got seven writers that cover almost everything related to Pitt sports, attend and cover games as credentialed members of the press, have a podcast, and post several times a day.
In 2013, we took a big step forward in beginning to do some coverage of the non-revenue/Olympic sports. Other than the official athletics department page, we were maybe the only site that covered the baseball team from start to finish last year, recapping basically every series. We also took a bigger step into the recruiting world. A big focus this year is to do more of those things. Pitt has an amazing wrestling program that’s always ranked and now in the top ten. The gymnastics program was ranked in the Top 25 last year. The baseball team had a school record 42 wins and was ranked. The women’s basketball team hired Suzie McConnell-Serio and was recently a Sweet 16 team. Programs like that deserve coverage and we’re one of the few sites that does much with those sports. And while we’ll never be a site geared fully towards recruiting, that’s a huge market obviously. We’re going to continue to do more in not only announcing when recruits have committed, but providing a bit more insight onto individual players and their backgrounds.
One thing I pride myself on is running a site that gives clear opinions but lacks homerism. We try to be as realistic as possible and while all of us are Pitt fans, my goal is for us to be as even-handed as possible.
First – Let’s talk Pitt basketball. How deflating was the Duke loss for Pitt? And considering they struggled against Maryland as well, should fans be worried bout this team moving forward?
The loss to Duke certainly hurt since a lot of fans, myself included, thought it was a game Pitt should win. This year, Pitt has struggled in their big ‘spotlight’ games when they’ve been in front of the entire country. Many poll voters have likely only seen Pitt against Syracuse, Cincinnati, and Duke … and the Panthers lost each game. But as I wrote afterwards on our site, it’s all got to be kept in perspective a bit. Pitt had an uncharacteristically bad night against Cincinnati and still lost by only one on a neutral court. The Syracuse loss was by only five and they were on the road and neck and neck with the No. 2 team in the country. Duke has NBA players and just shot lights out, playing their best game of the year. No reason to panic at all if you’re a Pitt fan. All three losses were to ranked teams and only one of them was at home. The Panthers don’t have the marquee win everyone wants, but beating Clemson by 33, Maryland by 20, Wake Forest by 15, Stanford by 20 … those are all better than average victories. Pitt doesn’t have a great win yet, but they have plenty of very good ones.
What are your thoughts on Patterson – is he the type of player than can be aggressive enough and carry this team deep into the NCAA tournament, or is his game too limited? And do you see him getting drafted?
Patterson certainly has the ability to take the team deep into the tournament, but Pitt’s question is going to be if they can find others to consistently support him. He had an off night against Duke and things like that are bound to happen. The Panthers are going to need other guys to step up and not only hit their season averages in the box score, but handle an even bigger load on nights that Patterson is limited. Because of that, I’m not sure I like their chances for a deep tournament run – all it takes is one bad game and Pitt is relying quite a bit on freshmen.
Earlier this year, I didn’t think there was a chance he’d get drafted. But he will have a legitimate chance to win the ACC Player of the Year award and if he does that, he’ll get even more attention. Patterson’s biggest flaw is that he’s a bit undersized for his true position at small forward. That’s especially true in the NBA when teams are playing bigger and bigger guys there. A guy like Mike Dunleavy, Jr. is 6’9″ and plays small forward, and teams will find it hard to play Patterson against players that long. All of that said, he does a lot of things very well and I continue to be amazed at how well he passes every game. At this point, I’d lean against him being taken but it’s hard not to see him getting into someone’s summer camp as a free agent.
Who are the current roster players that you really see stepping up this season and next?
A guy like Talib Zanna is stepping up this season and getting better, but the one that’s really improved is Cam Wright. As a freshman, Wright looked out of place on the court and struggled quite a bit. He got a little better last year, but still wasn’t more than a role player who could come in and get minutes based on solely his defense. This year, he’s more aggressive offensively and even though he’s not a great jump shooter, he’s a very efficient scorer because he often gets to the basket or takes high-percentage shots. I did an entire article last year about how he could take a Brad Wanamaker-type leap this year as a junior and that’s proving to be true.
When it comes to next year, Cam is going to have an even bigger role with both of Pitt’s top two scorers, Patterson and Zanna, graduating. Ditto for James Robinson, who might also have to do a little more scoring. The interesting thing to me will be the roles of the trio of freshmen that are playing this year – Mike Young, Jamel Artis, and Josh Newkirk. Those guys are getting their chances this year, but will have even more of an opportunity to do something next season.
What recruits should fans be most excited to see next year and why?
Pitt has three players coming in with center Shaquille Doorson, local forward Ryan Luther, and Vanderbilt transfer, Sheldon Jeter. Doorson could play right away just out of the sheer need for size on this team but Jeter is the one who could make the biggest impact. Next year would be his third year out of high school and he’s the kind of guy that will step in and get minutes immediately. There’s also Top 50 recruit Detrick Mostella who had committed to the team, but we don’t know what’s really going on with his qualifying status and even if he’ll be here at any point.
Should Artis be starting over Young, in your opinion? Why? Why not?
That’s a question that’s going to keep coming up as long as Young struggles. Right now, I wouldn’t make the move for a few reasons.
First, Pitt is playing well with the way things are right now and Jamie Dixon has never been a coach that likes to rock the boat. Young may lose minutes, but I’d expect him to still start unless he becomes absolutely unplayable. Another issue with a switch right now is that Pitt’s bench production is often nonexistent with the loss of Durand Johnson. Artis is sometimes the only guy doing much of anything there and if you make that switch, the bench could get even weaker. Lastly, Dixon has to be careful with how he handles Young on a personal level. He sustained some criticism (likely, unfairly) with the Khem Birch debacle and some of the other transfers Pitt has had, and while he’s not playing all that great right now, Young isn’t a guy the Panthers want to lose. To me, it just makes more sense to leave him where he is for now.
On to football….What players do you see stepping up in 2014
True sophomore Tyler Boyd instantly becomes the focal point of the offense. Most of 2013, he had Devin Street on the other side attracting a lot of attention and as a freshman, he was still a bit of an unknown to teams. But next year, there’s no Street, the line will still be making adjustments, and he has a new quarterback in Chad Voytik. I expect a big year out of Boyd, but he will have some things to overcome. The running back situation is also an interesting one. The top three rushers all return, but that unit often had its share of struggles last season. They really need to have a bigger year to take some pressure off of the passing game.
The defense is really taking a hit next season, too. There’s not only the enormous loss of Aaron Donald, but fellow lineman Ty Ezell, middle linebacker Shane Gordon, and K’Waun Williams and Jason Hendricks in the secondary are all gone as well. Because of that, a lot of pressure will go to the returning linebackers, Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas, who really will be counted on to help stop the run AND drop back into pass coverage since the line and secondary lose quite a bit.
What do you think of this years’ recruiting class and who should fans be most excited to see play in 2014?
This year’s class is a bit of a mixed bag. Pitt landed some very solid offensive players but really missed on most of their bigger defensive targets. It’s a pattern we’ve seen with Chryst’s staff as most of their bigger talent has been on offense. The linemen, Alex Bookser and Michael Grimm, are very strong ‘gets’, but we might only see them sparingly next season as true freshmen. The guy to watch is Adonis Jennings, a four-star wide receiver. He’ll have a shot to start opposite Boyd because of Street’s departure and could be an impact guy immediately. Running backs Chris James and Qadree Ollison could also make some noise, but they’ve got James Conner and Isaac Bennett fighting them for carries.
This program has struggled to recruit successfully in its own backyard, and the struggles seem to have gotten worse as PSU and WVU make greater inroads. Why is this and how o they rectify it, do you think?
We’ve written quite a bit about this recently, but it’s due to several factors. For one, Pitt has been a very average program for three years now, winning only six regular season games each time. Right now, the football program just reeks of mediocrity due to the coaching changes. Another issue is that some kids just want to leave town. Pitt isn’t going to get every single kid they want because often, local players want to just get away – no matter how much they may like Pitt. That’s particularly true in the cases of Penn State and West Virginia since those are rural campuses while Pitt is a decidedly urban one. Kids attracted to a more rural locale aren’t always going to find it easy to come to Oakland. The other issue is that Chryst just doesn’t appear to be a dynamic recruiter. There have been statements from some parents/family members that they’ve, in a few words, just not been really pleased with the staff. By all indications, Chryst could probably use a couple of guys on his staff that are real ‘go-getters’ and ruthless when it comes to landing kids.
The best thing Pitt can do right now, though, is just to win. The Panthers have two good chances to do that over the next couple of years as the 2014 schedule is a fairly mild one and in 2015, a lot of the younger talent they have (particularly on the offensive line) gets a little older. Winning 9-10 games a year will cure a lot of those recruiting woes and show some of the bigger talent that Pitt has missed on that by coming to Pitt, they can compete for a BCS game.
Has this program finally recovered from the numerous coaching changes, do you think?
They’re just now getting there. The changes really set them back as Graham’s only class was built with specific players not really suited for Chryst’s system and Chryst’s first class was thrown together mostly within a month with Graham’s departure. A huge problem was that the offensive line was really understocked for what Chryst likes to do, which is run. Chryst has had success in bringing in some big offensive talent, but we’re kind of in the waiting period where those guys are just getting adjusted. 2015, as I mentioned above, is kind of his make or break year.
Outside of Aaron Donald, what other Pitt players do you see being drafted in 2014?
Devin Street should be picked as long as he can prove that he’s healthy. There were some mock drafts that had him as a draft pick last season before he announced he was coming back. Without looking at the projections yet, my guess is that he’s mid-round pick. A guy like Tom Savage probably gets taken, too. His decision-making has to get a little better as he was plagued a bit by interceptions, but he has what NFL teams look for – a strong arm and an NFL frame. I’m not sure how his game will translate at the next level, but him getting drafted wouldn’t surprise me. Others, such as K’Waun Williams, should get a look as an undrafted free agent, if he’s not a late pick.
Any predictions for the program for 2014?
My early pick is that Pitt gets to eight wins. As I said earlier, the schedule is just too easy and even despite the losses on both sides of the ball, it’s hard not to like their chances. Fewer than eight wins would be a disappointment and fewer than seven would be a disaster.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Hail to Pitt!