PITTSBURGH — For every power-conference basketball team, the few marquee opponents scattered throughout the early season malaise of lesser lights are opportunities for learning a lot about how they stack up against an opponent on a more equal footing.
For a veteran team with a first-year head coach, the experience can be even more profound. Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings took his Panthers into New York City last week for a pair of games against Southern Methodist and Marquette that turned out to be quite the learning experience.
Here’s my five takeaways on what Stallings has learned about his team after a 1-1 trip to the Big Apple.
There needs to be life beyond Jamel Artis and Michael Young. Young, who scored a career-high 30 points against Marquette and was named the ACC’s Player of the Year for the second consecutive week, was the focal point of the team’s offense a year ago, as well, but he often supplemented his scoring with a lot of assists, as well.
That part of the game isn’t coming, in part, because no one else is scoring consistently. Cameron Johnson had nine points in the first half against SMU but none the rest of the trip. Chris Jones was able to salvage a 12 in Pitt’s win over Marquette after getting blanked against at the Mustangs.
“When we get a typical offensive game from [Artis and Young], if we can get a third guy to score, then it makes a big difference for our team.”
The key to getting another guy going is keeping everyone involved in the offense, even when it’s Artis and Young that are taking most of the shots.
“We started standing and watching those two,” Stallings said. “That’s just not how our offense is going to function best. … It was like we would throw it to Mike and then watch Mike score. That’s not how we’re supposed to do it.”
CALL IT THE BLISTER GAME
Jones got his 12 points against Marquette while playing with a large blister on his right foot. The blister got started in shoot around before the SMU game and by the half of that contest, he knew something wasn’t right. Before the second game Thursday, he sought out the team’s training staff to try to get it remedied.
“It was kind of a game-time call. It was pretty tough. I got out there and adrenaline started kicking in honestly and probably saved me.”
Jones blamed the blister on a specific shoe that he says he won’t be wearing in the future.
CART BEFORE THE HORSE?
With Artis playing out of position at point guard, many speculated that promising freshman Justice Kithcart would take over that role sooner than later. Kithcart has been given opportunities and has the most minutes off the bench of any of the team’s guards, but hasn’t been able to capitalize much, with just 12 points through four games. Given Stallings’ assessment of the young guard’s play, his potential status as point-guard-in-waiting seems unlikely, at least for now.
“Justice has given us some good minutes and he’s given us some minutes that haven’t been so good,” Stallings said. “I think that sometimes guys just have to grow into being college players. Sometimes, you get a guy that doesn’t want to accept who he is because they were more in high school [and] they think they should be more [in the] first semester of their freshman year in college. There’s a process that they go through to find out that they’re not that guy yet. Some guys get it more quickly than other. I think Justice is kind of finding out right now that it’s not high school.”
Stallings mentioned Kithcart’s free-throw shooting (he’s 2 for 12 from the line) as a sign that he’s been lacking in some confidence. The path to success, in Stallings’ mind, is to embrace his role as a bench player and one of the team’s best defenders.
“The sooner that he simplifies life for himself, the more productive he’ll be,” Stallings said. “Anyone, whether it’s Justice or someone else that fights themselves in terms of who they are and who they want to be, those guys are always going to find it more difficult.”
Senior forward Sheldon Jeter was in foul trouble for much of the Marquette game, earning his third just before halftime. Stallings doesn’t see Jeter’s foul problems being a carryover issue going forward, though.
“He was being aggressive,” Stallings said. “I never mind rebounding fouls, but he had a couple that were over the back where the guy clearly had position on him. The only thing that could happen was going to be a foul. He’s a senior. He knows when and when not to. He’s got to figure that out. I don’t think that will be a persistent problem for him. I like the fact that he’s being aggressive and trying to give the team great effort.”
IN THE ZONE
Stallings tinkered with his defense multiple times against SMU, playing both a 2-3 and a 3-2 zone in addition to man-to-man. The zones were effective in stretches, but Stallings ultimately went back to the man defense, and continued with it against Marquette, when the Panthers had their best half defensively to close the win.
“It’s my personality and it’s my background,” Stallings said of the choice of defense. “But I would tell you that zone could become a more prominent part of what we do. … We played some zone against SMU and it was effective. It actually got us a halftime lead. I’m not married to playing one way. The bottom line is that we have to become a team that can stop people, not a team that hopes the other team misses. For three halves up in New York, we were just sitting there hoping they missed. The fourth half, we stopped them. We guarded them. When you hold them to 9 for 30, which is what we did in the second half of that game, now you’re guarding someone. We just have to have more instances and have that be a regular occurrence.”
KEVIN STALLINGS AND CHRIS JONES PRESS CONFERENCE