PITTSBURGH — The cupboard is bare.
That’s the big takeaway from Pitt’s 72-46 loss to Miami on Saturday. The Panthers were playing without crucial sixth man Ryan Luther and might have been better off playing without injured star Michael Young, who had two points and provided little at either end while dealing with a broken orbital bone.
Luther is expected to miss three-to-six weeks with a foot injury, and while Young will be able to play, he will be forced to wear a protective mask until the broken bone heels.
Head coach Kevin Stallings had said before the season that his preference was to play with a nine-man rotation. To this point, he’s basically used seven, with Luther and freshman point guard Justice Kithcart being the only bench players to get significant minutes in conference play.
But you can’t play with four, and with Luther out and Young hobbled, Stallings emptied his bench to try to come up with any combination that seemed like it could grasp ahold of some momentum against what is an average ACC team in Miami.
There’s nothing there. Kithcart has been completely incapable of finding his scoring touch as a collegiate and went 0 for 2 in 11 minutes. Jonathan Milligan hit one three-pointer. Damon Wilson made three free throws. Corey Manigault made a layup. That’s the total of the offensive contributions Stallings got from his second five.
With the game out of hand in the second half, Stallings sat Young and Jamel Artis down and went just with the young guys. The 20-point lead bulged to the final 27-point margin. The fact of the matter is that without Luther and Young, Pitt just doesn’t have enough talent to consistently win in the ACC.
Furthermore, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. There are some intriguing players in Stallings’ 2017 recruiting class, including junior college shooting guard Jared Wilson-Frame and Virginia point guard Aaron Thompson. But Pitt is losing four starting seniors and there’s very little else to go with.
Come 2017-18, Luther and Cameron Johnson will be Pitt’s only two returning players that have proven they can compete at the ACC. Not win, just compete. That’s brutal, and it’s made some other things pretty clear.
DIXON’S LAST TWO CLASSES WERE BRUTAL
The 2016 class with Kithcart, Manigault and Chrisshawn Clark still has a chance to do something positive, but the already injury-prone Clark will miss this entire season and it’s unknown what kind of player he’s going to be when he comes back from his second consecutive season-ending knee injury.
Kithcart and Manigault at least look like they belong on ACC roster, but when the team has really needed a contribution from one of its freshmen, they haven’t been able to come through. There’s obviously still room to grow for each player, but in particular, Kithcart’s shooting issues seem troubling.
The 2015 group looks even worse, with Wilson still lacking a position, a shot or seemingly any way to contribute. Nix hasn’t played more than six minutes in any game. The three graduate transfers that made up the bulk of the class mostly were busts and prevented the Panthers from developing much-needed talent for the future.
With the value of hindsight, Dixon recruited in 2015 like a coach that didn’t plan on sticking around with four transfers. The lack of depth that strategy created is the reason Pitt is absolutely crippled by two injuries right now.
TO ZONE OR NOT TO ZONE
Pitt opened the game in it’s 1-2-2 delay full-court zone, which morphs into something more closely resembling a 3-2 in the half-court, and it was successful for large stretches, keeping the Canes out of sync early on.
But there’s an issue with playing a lot of zone. It makes it tough to rebounds. The Panthers were pounded on the glass, 37-23 and the Canes’ defensive rebounded sparked a big transition game from them.
“When you rebound, you can run,” said Miami coach Jim Larranaga. “If you don’t get it, just slow things down and make the other team play defense.
The other factor that may have limited Pitt’s ability on the glass was fear of fouling. Without Luther, Pitt’s only real bench option at forward was Manigault, and Stallings thought Sheldon Jeter wasn’t his usual aggressive self as a result.
“He wasn’t as aggressive because he obviously knew he couldn’t get into foul trouble,” Stallings said. “I didn’t think that he had one of his better days. It may have been inside his head a little about Mike [Young] and Ryan [Luther] being out.”
SHUTTING DOWN ARTIS
Stallings defended his decision to let Artis sit out the end of the blowout.
“He has been carrying us and we were down 20 or so points and we have to play again on Tuesday,” Stallings said. “He still played 30 minutes. You’ve got to give the kid a break at some point. If I would have thought that he was going to bring us back to victory, then I would have put him in, but I didn’t think he was going to bring us back to victory today. I can’t run the kid into the ground. He’s been our best defender all season long. I just didn’t see any reason to do that.”
What Stallings didn’t say, is that with the injury situation what it is, Artis is going to be absolutely critical for the team going forward. The chance of him getting banged up at the back end of a blowout was absolutely not worth the risk.
Pitt’s whole scheme this season is built around a six-man group of similarly sized players that can switch defensively and all handle the ball and shoot from the outside offensively to create matchup problems with opposing teams.
Without Luther, that might have to go out the window. Manigault is the right size to replace him in that scheme, but is clearly not ready for those minutes. Damon Wilson and Jonathan Milligan seem much closer to contributing, but that would require a fundamental change in the way the Panthers are doing things.
Stallings didn’t seem ready to commit to either option immediately after the game, which was somewhat understandable given the circumstances of losing a pair of players in two days’ time.
“We might have to play small,” Stallings hinted, while guard Chris Jones admitted that the team would have to “go back to the drawing board.”