PITTSBURGH — At the end of the 2016-17 Pitt basketball season, after the Panthers’ loss to Virginia in the second round of the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings already knew that a lot of what happened in the next six months was going to fall on the shoulders of Ryan Luther.
Luther, the Panthers’ only four-year senior entering the 2017-18 season, came off the bench behind Sheldon Jeter and Mike Young at the forward spot last year and was a key reserve until a foot injury sidelined him for several weeks of the ACC schedule. His injury coincided with a six-game losing streak for the Panthers that effectively ended their hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament.
Even in April, Stallings knew that Luther would be an important part of the process as the Panthers replaced seniors Jamel Artis, Jeter, Chris Jones and Young.
“Cam Johnson and Ryan Luther are going to have to step up into prominent positions in the program in terms of leadership and productivity,” Stallings said at the podium in the Barclay’s Center.
But Cameron Johnson’s highly publicized offseason transfer to North Carolina caught even Stallings off guard. Johnson’s departure followed that of Chrisshawn Clark, Justice Kithcart, Corey Manigault, Rozelle Nix and Damon Wilson.
There would be no dynamic returning duo of local products in Johnson and Luther to lead the team through a reloading year. There wouldn’t even be a sophomore class of young players that had gained experience. Just Luther, little-used guard Jonathan Milligan and walk-on Zack Smith.
At 6-foot-9, 225 pounds, Luther certainly has the frame to carry the load. But it’s going to be a long journey from backup to a future NBA player to the most important cog in a completely new offense.
But he’s not sweating the departures.
“Whether those guys came back or not, it still would have been the same thing,” Luther said in an exclusive interview Thursday. “We would have still been young.”
He also wants to make something else clear. The decision-making processes that led to five of his teammates transferring never entered his mind. Not for a minute.
“No,” he said bluntly when asked if he ever considered transferring. “When I chose to come here to Pitt, it was for a lot of reasons, it wasn’t just one. I made a commitment and I’m sticking to it. … It’s my last go around. Especially being from here. I wanted to leave it all out there and have no regrets.”
But it’s not going to be easy. Already this summer, Luther has been thrust into a leadership role that’s perhaps unlike any before in Pitt basketball history. There are currently 13 players on the roster and 11 of them are coming to him with every question from which classes to take to how to get to the practice gym to what it’s like to play at Duke and North Carolina.
“Being older, you’re going to be looked on to lead on and off the court. So far, that’s come naturally just because everyone is looking to me. It’s been pretty natural. I’m enjoying helping these guys out and watching them grow. They’ve already grown so much in a short few weeks.”
One of the big things that Luther has been charged with is maintaining the culture of the program. He’s the last link to the successful Panthers teams of the past.
“It’s my job to carry what I learned from the older guys that were in front of me and reciprocate that,” he said.
In fact, with so many new players and on-court expectations low, instilling the correct culture for this young group of incoming players to follow throughout their careers might be the most important job of Luther and the coaching staff.
“It’s been one of the most important things that we’ve talked about (and) focused on,” head coach Kevin Stallings said. “We want the most talented player that we can find that’s going to come in and be the kind of Pitt basketball player that we desire.”
On the court, Luther is expected to have an important role, as well. He’ll play some center and some forward, just like he always has, but now his production will be counted on as a big part of the Panthers’ offense.
“Coach puts a lot of trust and has a lot of confidence in the seniors if you earn it,” Luther said.
As a senior, he doesn’t feel that he needs to add or change his game. He just wants to have his best season by being more consistent than he ever has before.
“In years past, I’ve had a couple of stretches of games where I’ve played well and a couple stretches where I didn’t do so much,” Luther said. “I’m just trying to be consistent and bring it every night.”