PITTSBURGH — With nearly a week off between games in the middle of the season, Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had some time to go to the drawing board and come up with some changes to his team’s defense to hope to stop a four-game losing streak when No. 13 Louisville comes to town on Tuesday.
Stallings declined to say what those changes exactly will be, but expect there to be some zone mixed in whether it’s what is working or not, just because of the team’s depth situation. Forward Ryan Luther (foot) remains “weeks” away from returning, according to Stallings, and playing 40 minutes of man-to-man isn’t going to be an option with a six-man rotation that features four players 6-foot-7 or taller.
“Some of what we’re doing is obviously out of necessity because of our numbers situation and our depth,” Stallings said in his press conference Monday morning. “We’re probably playing a little more zone than we would prefer to. I don’t know how much of that we can really change given the situation we’re in. We might try to tweak some things.”
Stallings said one of the issues that he’s identified is the tendency for his high-minutes players to take the occasional possession off in the defensive zone. He said that it’s only human nature to do so, but that’s one of the things he must combat as head coach.
“There are probably times we have guys saving themselves on offense as opposed to doing what we need on defense,” he said. “While you hope against that and you coach against that, it’s natural. A lot of what coach is, at least in my opinion, is to get guys to fight against human nature things. It’s tough to tell a 20-year old to go against what his instinct tells him. The ones that listen and the ones that buy in are the ones that ultimately have the most success. That’s kind of a work in progress.”
Starting forward Michael Young doesn’t feel that he’s one of the guilty parties on that front, despite his 35.7-minute average playing time in conference play.
“That’s not something I think about during the game,” Young said. “My goal is to give it all every possession.”
That’s not the only issue with the team’s defense, either, obviously. The Panthers are 14th in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing an average of 76.3 points per game and Stallings doesn’t feel like he’s gotten the same level of buy-in defensively that he has to his offensive systems.
“Right now, my assessment is the only thing it feels like they’ve bought into 100 percent is freedom on offense. Well, anybody could buy into that. That’s not hard a thing to buy into. That’s just human nature,” Stallings said. “I haven’t gotten them to buy into the way we have to play defensively. … That part’s been a little bit frustrating.”
ONE BIG RUN
Over the four-game losing slide, Pitt has been victimize by big opposition runs that have flipped the score out of their favor. Stallings said that while the defense has been his focus, the offense can be at fault, as well.
“When runs are made, it could be because your defensive is letting down, sometimes it’s because your offense is letting down,” Stallings said. “Late in the game [against NC State], I thought it was our offense that hurt us. I thought our defense was OK.”
One of the things the team can do better offensive is better utilize Young, whether it’s in the post, on the wing or in transition.
“We’re not going to win tough, close road games if Mike [Young] goes scoreless the last five, six or eight minutes of the game,” Stallings said, of his star forward. “We have to do a better job of getting him into position and getting him the ball and he’s got to do a better job of taking the right kind of shots and that sort of thing.”
Stallings has been hobbled by the team’s lack of depth all season, and while he’s been cautious not to throw too many stones at his immediate predecessor, he did have some interesting things to say about the leadership of this team contributing to that lack of growth.
“In the successful programs that I’ve been in and the teams and programs that I’ve had, the older guys helped coach the younger guys, because they had been through it.” Stallings said. “That doesn’t happen to much right now. The idea in any program is for the older guys, especially if they’re the better ones, which they are in our program right now, to reach out to their teammates, help bring those guys along and help make those guys better.
“That part has been a little bit of a disappointment because there’s not a ton of that that goes on. You talk to guys about being more outward and making guys better and it’s just not in their nature. It’s not how they’ve been used to doing things, apparently. We have to try to change some things as we go forward to create leadership, to create buy-in and to develop what we like to call competitive character in a way that all of us are making each other better.”
Stallings said that he’d heard that James Robinson had done much of that type of leading for this team in years past and that he hasn’t gotten anyone to fully step into that role.
“I think it was a difficult transition, because some of us are outward as far as giving energy to the team and some of us are more inward,” forward Sheldon Jeter. “James was always the outward person. James was the one that would get us into huddles and do stuff like that. In little ways, we do miss that leadership, but at the same time, there’s still leadership on this team.”
SECOND TIME AROUND
I asked Jeter if he thought that the way the team came back against Louisville in the teams’ first game showed that they can compete with a team that has more athleticism on the guard side and more height on the big side than the Panthers do.
“It can work. It should have worked,” Jeter said. “They’re taller, but there were times we didn’t even try to box out and make contact. … You have to exert that effort. They exerted more effort in the beginning of the game.”
Young said that the team learned a lot from the first half of the second half of that first contest and hopes to carry that forward into this one.
“We’ll be better prepared. I think going against that defense in the first half, where they kind of play man and kind of play zone, kind of matchup, I think it bothered us offensively. In the second half, we were able to be more successful because we knew what was coming. I think in this game, we anticipate a better start and more comfort going against their defense.”