NEW YORK — There were many uncertainties coming into this season for the Pitt Panthers. Would the Jamel Artis at point guard experiment work? Were they big enough inside to rebound against high level forwards? Could they defend drives to the basket?
Mostly, those questions went unanswered in the pair of opening home games against Eastern Michigan and Gardner-Webb, but the Panthers found a whole lot of answers in their 76-67 loss to Southern Methodist at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.
But it was one of the items that wasn’t on that reason checklist that cropped up as an issue for the Panthers. Michael Young again shouldered the bulk of the load for the Panthers offensively, scoring 22 points. Artis added 20, but it was the lack of contributions from players other than Artis and Young that stood out.
The whole rest of the team combined for just 25. Starter Chris Jones (25 minutes) was held scoreless. Sheldon Jeter had five points in 29 minutes. Cameron Johnson had nine at the break, but was shut out in the second half.
Pitt’s offense is capable of sharing the ball extremely well. Young is an excellent inside-out passer and Artis and Justice Kithcart have the driving skills to pull defenders to them and then hand it off.
Pitt had 46 assists in its first two games, but it didn’t work that way against the Mustangs. The Panthers finished with just 10 compared to 13 turnovers and the inefficient passing was the reason they put up 67 points after scoring over 90 in each of the first two games.
“They packed their defense in and we just started dribbling,” said head coach Kevin Stallings. “We would have one guy dribbling and four guys watching. That’s not who we are when we’re good and we’re at our best when we’re moving the ball and guys are screening and working for each other. We had some good moments. We started doing a better job as the game went on of getting the ball to Mike inside, but I thought those were they ways we came up short.”
Artis was a certainly a contributor to the stagnation of the offense, but when Stallings was asked to single out his performance, he was more complimentary.
“Jamel has been plenty good in that role,” Stallings said. “At times, we’re point guard by committee. Mike [Young] is capable of bringing it. Our offense can function just fine without a prototypical pure point guard. We just have to get ourselves into a situation where what Jamel does well becomes more of an advantage for us. He certainly got to the basket and scored and did some things tonight.”
FIGURING IT OUT
Artis’ lack of passing production is something of a moot point for the Panthers, because the players that could potentially replace him are hardly tearing it up.
Freshman Justice Kithcart had four points, one assist and two turnovers in 12 minutes. Kithcart has shown flashes of potential, especially in driving to the basket. But with just 10 points on the season, it’s hard to envision him producing more than the team’s other options.
Jonathan Milligan had a reduced role, playing seven minutes without a point.
GAME OF RUNS
The teams traded big first-half runs, with SMU going on a 16-0 run to turn a five-point Pitt lead to an 11-point Mustangs advantage with six minutes to play in the first half. Stallings called a time out, changed his defense, and Pitt responded with a 13-point run to end the half.
This is where the upside of Stallings’ offense lays. In years past against top-level opponents, Pitt would too frequently take an opponent’s run and be unable to respond in kind. There are clearly still plenty of issues to work out, but this was an encouraging development.
CHANGING IT UP
As reference, Stallings dabbled with a zone, first going to a 2-3 and then playing some 3-2 while mixing in man-to-man and a 1-2-2 full-court press. The constant changing of defenses challenged the younger SMU players, according to head coach Tim Jankovich.
“This was a heck of a challenge for us, and we it would be, because [Stallings is] always thinking and he’s always countering,” Jankovich said.
Jankovich and Stallings are old friends, and Jankovich worked for Stallings at Vanderbilt, so there was a good amount of familiarity between the players, but Jankovich said that the Pitt offense is unlike anything he’s seen Stallings use before.
Pitt’s tenure as regular guests at Madison Square Garden may be coming to a close. With the ACC Tournament rotating amongst cities and the team no longer focusing recruiting efforts in the region, it may make more sense to explore other opportunities elsewhere when it comes to scheduling preseason tournaments. But as long as they’re playing here, it will be a special place for Pitt’s players.
“I love playing here,” Young said. “It’s my third time. It’s just the atmosphere, the lights, the court, the way it’s set up. I love everything about it. I grew up playing a little ways from here. I’ve been to a lot of games here, growing up and watching different players play here in big time games. It’s just really special.”