When Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings named Jamel Artis his point guard at the start of the 2016-17 season, there were plenty left scratching their heads at the decision.
Artis has gone a long way to prove a lot of people wrong thus far, as he’s averaged 21.5 points per game and has big games against top opponents, scoring 22 at Maryland, 25 against Notre Dame, 24 against Virginia and 23 against Syracuse. In addition to his point-scoring, he’s taken care of the basketball, as well, with 50 assists compared to 40 turnovers.
But all of that comes with a significant caveat. What’s going to happen when a team really decides to press Pitt and more specifically, Artis’ ball-handling abilities?
We’ll find out tonight as the Panthers visit Louisville, where Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino’s full-court match-up press has chewed up and spit out far more talented ball-handers than Artis. Artis has said that he wants to prove that he’s capable of being a full-time point guard in the ACC, and there isn’t a bigger defensive test than Louisville, so tonight will be a big night for the senior.
It’s also a big opportunity for the team, as they can collect another win against a ranked opponent in the No. 14 Cardinals. But road wins don’t come easy against any team in the ACC, especially at Louisville.
“We certainly know that we’ll have our hands full [tonight],” head coach Kevin Stallings in his teleconference Monday. “It’s a tough place to play.”
While Stallings will be making his first trip to the KFC Yum! Center with the Panthers, his team knows it as a house of horrors. The Panthers are 1-7 in Louisville overall and 0-5 in the current building. In those five losses (one in overtime), Pitt has averaged just 54.2 points per game. Last year, they put up an abysmal offensive performance, scoring just 41 points against the press.
In total, Pitt has lost eight straight games to the Cardinals, with the last win coming Jan. 16, 2010 at the Petersen Events Center. Their last win and only win in Louisville was Jan. 15, 2006. That doesn’t have Pitino and the Cardinals taking Pitt lightly, though.
“The talent in this conference is so strong that on any give night, anything can happen to anyone,” he said.
CHANGES ON THE FLY
One of the advantages to the lineup that Stallings has been putting out there, with all five starters being between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-9 is that is causes other teams to get out of their comfort zone and change their lineups, formations and schemes from what they typically utilize.
That was evident against Virginia, when starting center Jack Salt played just two minutes, unable to keep up with Pitt’s mobile forwards.
But sometimes, the change the opponent makes is an unexpected one, and that can cause issues for the Panthers, as it did at Syracuse, when the Orange tried to stop the pass from Artis to Michael Young in the middle of the zone.
The unpredictability of what an opponent will do to counter Pitt’s unusual lineup means that the Panthers need to be good at making in-game adjustments, and that’s something that is still a work in progress.
“They’re probably to some degree, still getting used to a new approach, different things being said in timeouts and different adjustments being asked for, that sort of thing,” Stallings said. “We’ve had some good moments, but we’ve had some moments when we literally go out and do something completely the opposite of what we’ve talked about. We’re still working to get better in that regard.”
Freshman point guard Justice Kithcart has played sparingly over the last two games, getting just two minutes against Syracuse, and he hasn’t scored a basket since ACC play started.
But with the emphasis place on ball-handling by the Louisville press, this might be the game that he gets a bigger chance to help the team.
“We try to find the best time for those guys to make their contributions,” Stallings said. “I think some of it will be situational.”