PITTSBURGH — The Pitt Panthers closed their non-conference schedule with an 11-2 record and now will begin the meat of their schedule by starting ACC play against Notre Dame at Petersen Events Center on Saturday.
While Pitt is mostly led by a group of experienced seniors that have been through the tribulations of the ACC season before, it’s an important time remind the others that the stakes will be significantly raised the next time the Panthers take the floor.
“Little boy ball is over,” senior Michael Young said after practice Friday when asked what he’s said to his less-experienced teammates about the step up in opponent. “That means every time you step on the court from this point out, you’re going to be playing somebody who is somebody. You’re playing a team that could beat you by 30 if you don’t come ready to play. Every night, you have to come ready to play. … If you’re not ready to play, you will get your butt handed to you.”
That could be a scary proposition for the Panthers, who lost to SMU and Duquesne in non-conference games and have looked less-than-dominant at other times, including Wednesday, when they allowed 106 points to Marshall in a narrower-than-necessary victory.
But first-year head coach Kevin Stallings has confidence that his team can take the steps that are necessary to make the transition to the top league in the country.
“I think that they love to compete. They love the challenge of competing. When we went over to scrimmage Villanova, I saw it. When we went to Maryland, I saw it. There’s a real competitive nature to this group that when it’s challenged, they enjoy it.”
Stallings also said he likes the experience of his four seniors. While experience certainly is valuable, that didn’t stop the Panthers from being picked to finish 12th in ACC in the preseason media poll.
“When we were finished 12th, I was a little surprised by that,” Stallings said.
But Young knows the Panthers will have to prove that they’re better than the poll on the court, and he does feel that his experience in having played a number of years in the league gives him a pretty good idea of what to expect from each team each night. With a first-year head coach, the experience of Young and the other seniors could be crucial.
“It helps a lot, especially when I’m trying to get my team ready for the game,” Young said. “Having that experience and knowing what needs to happen is a whole lot better than not having it.”
Another potential reason the Panthers were selected so low is the brutality of their schedule. Pitt plays Louisville, North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia twice — that’s three of the projected top four — and the fourth, Duke, Pitt plays on the road on a combined trip with their visit to Chapel Hill. There are really are no nights off in the ACC, and with Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia and Louisville to start things off, Pitt will learn that lesson quickly.
“Trust me, that’s kept me awake at night,” Stallings joked.
Pitt expects Notre Dame to bring an up-tempo attack that will at times mimic what the Panthers are trying to do by getting out in transition quickly and spreading the floor in the half-court. The Fighting Irish are ranked eighth in adjusted offense by KenPom.com and Pitt is 29th, so it should be a high-scoring affair.
“Both teams like to get up, take fast shots, trying to get down in transition and not waste time on the shot clock,” said Pitt point guard Jamel Artis. “It’s going to be a fast-tempo game. A lot of points will be scored. We’re going to have to come down and get stops at the end.”
The up-tempo style of Notre Dame and three different but difficult defensive styles upcoming in Louisville, Syracuse and Virginia will challenge Artis as he makes his first trip through the league as a point guard after playing mostly the wing in his first three seasons.
“There are key matchups at the point guard position in the ACC,” he said. “I’m ready to go out there and show them that I’m an all around player. … That comes from playing defense, getting other people shots or me scoring the basketball. Whatever it is, I want to go out there and compete.”