PITTSBURGH — The Panthers are going to look different in 2016.
From the new-look Petersen Events Center to the new, almost-all-white uniforms, to an up-tempo offense and Jamel Artis as point guard, this year’s Pitt basketball team might be indistinguishable from its predecessors.
But according to new head coach Kevin Stallings, the Panthers aren’t being rebuilt in his image. Instead, they’re going to look the way should look. I’ll let him explain:
“There are some coaches — and some very, very successful coaches — that come in and say, ‘We are going to play this way. You’re going to do these things because this is how I see the game, this is how I’ve always coached and how I’m comfortable coaching. Even if it doesn’t fit you, we’re going to do it because that’s the way I do it.’
“I have a different approach. I believe that our approach is flexible enough to be fitted and molded to the talents that we have. That’s what we’ll try and do. We’ll try to take the most advantage of the talents that our players have, try to accentuate what they do well and avoid what they’re not very good at, both in an individual and a collective way.
“I’ve had 6-foot-10 guys lead our team in 3-point attempt because they’re our best shooters. I’m not saying Mike Young is going to lead us in 3-point shots, but if Mike can make threes, he’s going to shoot threes. Another coach might say that because Mike is our biggest guy, we need to just stick him inside. I’m different than that. Sheldon Jeter shot 39 percent from three as a freshman for me. He’s going to shoot some jump shots. I’ve seen him make them. I know he can make them. I’m going to try to put guys where they can be successful. … I want these guys to do what they’re good at any my responsibility is to put them in those positions where they can be their best. That doesn’t always come from a cookie-cutter approach.”
That not-cookie-cutter approach will have Artis as the starting point guard, with Chris Jones likely at the two spot and Jeter, Young, Cameron Johnson and Ryan Luther fitting into the heaviest part of the rotation.
The reason Stallings is looking at Artis up top is his passing ability, and he thinks that can be a strength of the team overall.
“I think we share the ball really well,” Stallings said. “There’s a really unselfish element to our team. I think that we have multiple guys that can score. I think we have a guy in Mike that is a guy that’s going to score well most nights, because he has too many ways to beat you as an offensive player. We have a lot of flexibility both on offense and defense in terms of our size and length. Most of us are between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-9. We have some perimeter guys that are good inside, we have some post guys that are good outside. So we can invert our offense a little bit. I think the overall flexibility is a strength.
“It’ll probably be a little different from that in that we’ll have multiple guys bring the ball up the floor. If Mike Young gets a rebounds, it will not bother me if he busts out on the dribble and brings it up in transition. Again, a little unconventional, but we have to play to our strengths.”
Behind Artis at point guard is a more-traditional-looking player, true freshman Justice Kithcart. Kithcart impressed in summer league with his speed, quickness, but Stallings is expecting this to be a learning year for the youngster.
“He can be very disruptive and I like his tenacity as a defensive player,” Stallings said. “He has to learn some things offensively. Every freshman guard gets in too much of a hurry. I really like the game-changing tempo that he can create defensively. He can attack the goal. He’ll make an open jump shot. I think he possesses a high degree of toughness for a kid that’s only a freshman. The speed, quickness and toughness, you combine those and you have a chance to be a good player.”
Kithcart is joined by fellow freshman Corey Manigault and junior college transfer Crisshawn Clark in Pitt’s class of 2016, but the team is going to live and die with its four seniors. They’re going to get the lion’s share of the minutes and the responsibilities.
“The seniors, as I’ve told them very clearly, are going to set the tone for all that we do, good or bad,” Stallings said. “If things are going to go well, it’s going to be because of them, and if things crumble, it will be because of them. I think they’ve taken that very seriously and have really tried to step up their leadership game, their examples, their desire to have the right kind of culture.”
Young said that during the time the team was without a coach this spring, the seniors came together and bonded in a way that they hadn’t previously. When Stallings pitched a bigger role in the leadership of the team, it was something they all took to.
“It’s something that we meet on weekly,” Stallings said. “The four of them and I meet weekly on what they want this team to look like and how we’re going to affect that change. They’ve taken that on very, very seriously and I’m really impressed with some of the things they’ve done. Hopefully, that will keep up. It’s a little bit easier when you haven’t lost any games and there’s no adversity. Hopefully, we can create a way of life here that allows us to not only sustain through adversity, but thrive through adversity. I think it’s something they’ve tried very hard at.”
Stallings obviously has a lot on his plate, with recruiting ramping up at the same time he’s getting started on the final details for the 2016 team, which begins official practices today. So he hasn’t had much time to look forward, but there is one thing that’s on his mind — a packed house at the Pete.
“I’m looking forward to learning what the Petersen Events Center looks like on game night and what our crowd is like,” he said. “I hear from coaches on the road what a great home-court advantage we have. I’m very, very excited to experience it.”