PITTSBURGH — For the 11 new players in Pitt’s lineup, they got to experience victory in a Panthers uniform for the first time on Wednesday night with a 70-62 win over UC Santa Barbara.
The Panthers did not look like world-beaters, trailing for all but 6:58 of the game and needing some clutch plays late to seal the victory over a team that finished 6-22 and dead last in the Big West Conference last season.
But to be honest, we should probably stop focusing on the wins and losses for this Pitt team. It’s pretty obvious at this point, after a 1-2 start and losses to Navy and Montana, that the Panthers aren’t any kind of a postseason team. They probably also aren’t much of a threat to win a whole lot of games in the ACC.
Yes, the losses to Navy and Montana were embarrassing and losing to UCSB at home would have been even more so.
But that’s not the point of the 2017-18 season for the Panthers. Nobody puts together a team of 11 new players and expects them to compete for a title outside of Kentucky.
This is a rebuilding year and to Kevin Stallings’ credit, he hasn’t shied away from that. His team features just one grad transfer when he could have packed it with half a dozen, and he’s playing his freshmen extensively.
Terrell Brown earned his first start, Peace Illegomah got his first action of the year, Parker Stewart broke into double digits for the first time and Shamiel Stevenson continued to display his physical dominance with a couple of thunderous dunks.
This season is about Pitt’s freshmen class and how Brown, Marcus Carr, Khameron Davis, Stevenson and Stewart are able to adapt to the college game and refine their craft with an eye towards competing in the future.
So while the players celebrated the victory and the 2,685 in attendance felt a bit better leaving than they had earlier in the week, the main points of emphasis should be on the way the Panthers played on the court, win or lose.
In that regard, it seems that Stallings’ young team has a number of weaknesses that can be exploited, the first of which is stopping dribble drives in man-to-man defense. Pitt has played exclusively man-to-man defense through three games and there’s a very deliberate reason for that: Pitt needs to work on its man-to-man defense. Stallings explains:
“How we play defensively right now is probably the worst way to play Santa Barbara and I knew that and I could see that Monday night. I was watching the game film after we lost the overtime game.
“So now, I have choices. I can throw a press in front of our defense. I can throw a zone in, whatever. It’s tempting, because you want to win the game, and then you start making short-term decisions.
“We need to learn the fundamentals of what we’re trying to do before I try to fix problems for them. It’s kind of what we did in the second half a little bit. We started fixing problems and when we started fixing problems, they started shooting 24 percent. That’s a much better lesson than me doing something the day before the game that we could have pulled off. We could have pulled it off and it would have maybe made a difference, but, to kind of bail them out and protect them, if you will.
“I’ve got to put them in the best position to win. It’s a fine line as a coach. That’s why it’s a really good question. There’s a fine line as a coach of we’ve got to learn the fundamentals first and yet, obviously, the objective is to win the game. It’s a battle that I fight with a team that’s this young.”
It’s clear that in many regards, Stallings is rightfully more worried about the process than the outcomes for his young team. So as Stallings’ team progresses through the season, here are some issues that have cropped to watch for progress, regardless of the final score.
What Stallings said in not so many words above was that his team’s man-to-man defense was not very good in the first half against UCSB. Instead of changing defenses or tactics, Stallings stuck with it and was rewarded by a better performance in the second half.
At some point, every team is going to need to be able to play more than one defense if the situation calls for it. But Stallings believes that being able to play a basic man-to-man defense is a foundational building block, so don’t expect him to change it up much until he feels his squad has mastered it.
Pitt has been out-rebounded on the offensive glass in three straight game. They had five against Navy and UCSB and 12 against Montana while giving up nine to the Midshipmen, 14 to the Grizzlies and 19 to the Gauchos.
Giving up more offensive rebounds than you’re getting a sure-fire way to lose basketball games, and that’s one of the big reasons UCSB was able to keep the game close on Wednesday even though Pitt outshot them throughout.
Stallings said after the Montana game that he needed to do a better job of communicating what a good shot is and what it isn’t. A good shot doesn’t just mean the position on the floor it’s taken from. Circumstances like the position of the defense, the time left on the shot clock and the availability of offensive rebounders need to go into the decision of when to shoot, and those are things that many young players aren’t used to considering in high school or AAU settings.
On the other size of the court, Pitt’s defense isn’t rebounding that well for a couple of reasons. One of which is that they just aren’t that tall, with 6-foot-9 Ryan Luther the only player in the top five in minutes that is taller than 6-foot-6.
The other factor is that Pitt’s defense is having to help so frequently in order to deal with dribble-drives that they are leaving a completely uncovered player somewhere every time the ball approaches the rim. That free rebounder can crash unencumbered, and until Pitt tightens up the defense with more regularity, there’s not much that can be done about that.
TURNOVERS, HOT AND FRESH
The other way to have fewer possessions than the opposition is to turn the ball over, and Pitt has done that, as well. The Panthers have 44 turnovers in three games and have forced 39.
Carr is a talented young point guard, but freshmen are going to make some mistakes. He has six turnovers in 72 minutes (.083 turnovers per minute), while redshirt senior Jonathan Milligan comes in at .057. Milligan played more against UCSB than he has in the first two games, and responded with a career-high 11 points.
Expect the balance of playing time between the two at the point guard position to continue to wax and wane based on the way Carr handles the minutes he’s given.