Published October 11, 2012
PITTSBURGH – Steven Adams isn't exactly an expert on Pitt basketball history.
All the freshman center knows is the Panthers have been pretty good for about as long as he can remember. Tell him the team actually missed the NCAA tournament for the first time under coach Jamie Dixon, and the 7-footer from New Zealand shrugs his massive shoulders.
"I don't care about last year," he said through a thick Kiwi accent.
Funny, neither do the rest of his teammates.
True, the Panthers actually won a championship last spring, but the College Basketball Invitational isn't the kind of thing programs that are used to making deep runs in the NCAAs put on their resume. In most ways, 2011-12 was a lost season the moment point guard Tray Woodall went down with a lingering abdominal injury that forced him to sit 11 games and sent the Panthers into a tailspin in which they never recovered.
Woodall insisted Thursday he's "100 percent" but brushes off any talk that this is his team now that Ashton Gibbs has graduated.
"This is the coach's team," Woodall said. "As players, all we can do is focus on getting back to playing Pitt basketball."
Something the Panthers rarely did last winter. Their defense, normally one of the toughest in the country, looked ordinary in home losses to teams like Wagner, Long Beach State and Rutgers.
"It was embarrassing," said junior forward Lamar Patterson.
And now it's over.
Pitt isn't focused on this season being one of redemption as much as transition. The Panthers are leaving the Big East for the ACC next summer and Woodall plans to leave the conference the same way he came in, with a league title.
"That's what our goal always is," Woodall said. "I think we've got the depth this year where we think we can do it."
It's only October, sure, but even Dixon is surprisingly optimistic. Following a season in which nothing seemed to go right and he had to scrape some nights to find 10 healthy bodies to practice, he's eagerly accepted the job of trying to figure out how to get 15 guys on the floor.
"We've got good size," Dixon said. "And we're going to have the versatility to play a couple different ways defensively and do some things that we have in the past. We've got to be the best defensive team in the conference. That's what we've done when we've won conference championships."
Adams and Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler also give the Panthers a much-needed talent influx. Zeigler averaged 15.8 points last season and was granted a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately at Pitt after his father, Ernie, was fired by the Chippewas last spring.
His arrival should soften the blow from Gibbs' departure, and his ability to create off the dribble should open things up for shooters on the wings and give Adams some space.
The 19-year-old Adams is the youngest of 18 children. His half-sister, Valerie Kansanita Vili-Adams, is a two-time Olympic shot-put champion. Toughness comes in the family, and Adams jokes the only reason he chose basketball is because he outgrew rugby.
"I was this tall lanky kid and I'd get smashed," he said.
The Panthers hope Adams does some smashing of his own. He's already gotten the hang of it in practice. Asked what happens when he slices to basket and finds Adams in his way, Zeigler laughs and says "it's either a foul or the ball ends up in the second row."
Dixon calls Adams perhaps the best freshman big man the Panthers have had since DeJuan Blair in 2007. Only Blair was an undersized power forward who used his strength as an equalizer. Adams has long arms and broad shoulders as well as a deft touch from 15 feet, though the characteristic that impresses his coach the most is his work ethic.
"I think he's got some very good tools," Dixon said. "He works. He really wants to be a player."
There's already talk Adams could have the kind of potential that would make his stay in Pittsburgh a short one. Adams prefers not to talk about it and Dixon says there's so much work to be done trying to project what will happen in the spring is impossible.
All the Panthers know is they have one last year in the Big East. Dixon has nothing but praise for the conference even as it prepares to lose Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame to the ACC. Asked if there would be something special about winning the last year of the Big East as it has been known for the last 30 years and he plays politician.
"The Big East has strengthened themselves in a lot of ways," he said. "It's more stable now than it was a year ago because of realignment throughout the country. The Big East has a great future ahead of it.
"We're in a good spot too."
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP