PITTSBURGH — Kevin Stallings’ first game as head coach of the Pitt Panthers probably won’t give him many fuzzy memories, but his Panthers survived a determined upset scare by Eastern Michigan and escaped with a 93-90 victory at the Petersen Events Center.
Pitt never trailed in regulation and led by as many as 12 points late in the second half, but a flurry of turnovers and strong play from Eastern Michigan’s 2-3 zone defense meant the Panthers had to sweat it out through 50 minutes.
Here’s my five takeaways from Pitt’s harrowing season-opening victory.
Artis played exceptionally well against the zone offensively, as he has done throughout his career. He finished with 27 points and he got them by shooting (4 of 12 from 3-point range) and driving to the basket (he earned 12 free throws, making 11).
He also did a good job of directing the rest of the offense against the zone and was able to find Michael Young in the post many times, especially in the first half. He finished with three assists and no turnovers — always a crucial measure of a point guard’s play.
But issues cropped up defensively. Too frequently, the Eastern Michigan guards were able to drive around him to the basket and he was forced to play the final two minutes of the second half and all of overtime.
“We played very hard, but sometimes we were over-egressive and we tended to let guys drive,” Artis said. “We have to know to send guys to the help side.”
Coming into the game, Stallings said they were focused on helping against talented center James Thompson IV. Pitt was able to do that, holding Thompson to eight points before he fouled out in overtime, but the driving of guards Ray Lee and Ty Toney quickly became a bigger problem.
The combination of a different focus and foul trouble gave Stallings reason to believe that Artis would be able to improve his on-ball defense. That, and possibly playing fewer minutes. Artis finished with a team-high 45, and Stallings thought fatigue may have contributed down the stretch.
WORKING OUT A ROTATION
Stallings said coming into the game that he wanted to have a nine-man rotation, and he was true to his word. Artis, Young, Chris Jones, Cameron Johnson and Sheldon Jeter earned starting nods. Ryan Luther was the first player off the bench, getting 18 minutes. True freshman Justice Kithcart came next and appears to be the primary option off the bench in the backcourt. Kithcart ended up with 27 minutes, which was increased because Johnson got into foul trouble, but it’s clear that he’s leapfrogged the other guards on the roster. Stallings was pleased that Kithcart had no turnovers and thought he provided impactful defense.
Behind Kithcart, Jonathan Milligan played eight minutes and Damon Wilson played two. Stallings said there could be some changes in the distribution of minutes, but it seems like those nine are his guys, leaving Rozelle Nix and Corey Manigault on the outside looking in. With the depth at forward, there could be a chance that Manigault redshirts this season.
IN THE ZONE
Twice, Stallings tinkered with a 2-3 zone defensively. The first time he tried it, Eastern Michigan scored five points in two possessions. But with the game on the line in the second overtime, he went back to it, and Pitt was able to force five straight misses.
Stallings said he “isn’t married to any way of playing defense,” so if the zone continues to perform, it could become an option that Stallings turns to more often. With the team’s size at guard, it would seem to be an attractive choice, but Pitt will already be at a rebounding disadvantage against most teams with the 6-foot-9 Young as their tallest player. Playing in a zone would exacerbate that issue.
ANYBODY OUT THERE?
The attendance was just 6,411. While that’s a painfully low figure for a program that for a long time could depend on capacity crowds of over 12,000, it’s actually a slight increase from the home opener a year ago, when they drew 6,219 against Division II St. Joseph’s (Indiana).
WHAT IT MEANS
Eastern Michigan is a quality MAC team. They were picked to win their division and are rated in the top 100 teams in the country by KenPom.com. So not only is that a good team Pitt played, it should remain a quality win for RPI purposes throughout the season.
With the lineup of all 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-9 players, there were bound to be issues defensively. With lesser light Gardner-Webb up next, Pitt still has a one more tuneup to try to get things right before the schedule gets more serious with SMU and Michigan or Marquette at Madison Square Garden next week.