NEW YORK — Everyone that was paying attention entering the 2017-18 men’s basketball season knew that Pitt was going to struggle with seven true freshmen and nine players playing Division I basketball for the first time in their careers.
With a young and inexperienced team, there were bound to be growing pains and areas where the team struggled. They also lack the length and depth of many of their opponents.
What many — head coach Kevin Stallings included — did not expect was a lack of effort.
That’s what Stallings and Jared Wilson-Frame said happened on Monday, when Penn State got out to a 16-3 start in the Nittany Lions’ 85-54 victory at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“We got punched in the mouth and we just didn’t respond,” Stallings said. “We let them get their head up right at the start and get to a good start, we got on our heels and then we played very tentatively. They played very aggressively.”
Of the Panthers on the floor, junior wing Jared Wilson-Frame seemed to have the most energy and he came through with a game-high 17 points. But it was him, not Stallings, that delivered the most pointed criticism of the Panthers’ play.
“I think we just didn’t respond to their energy,” Wilson-Frame said. “We didn’t match their energy enough. … When we got punched, we didn’t respond.”
Stallings had said before the season that he thought that a more consistent effort level would be on of the highlights of this team. But perhaps even that was premature.
“Certainly, I take responsibility for it,” Stallings said. “It was a little bit shocking to me. Certainly, we had our best days of practice the last few days and so our preparation was pretty good.”
Stallings suggested that playing in an NBA arena for the first time might have effected some of his players. Penn State head coach Pat Chambers had another thought.
“It’s the understanding of how hard you have to play on this level,” Chambers said. “They’re all the best players on their team in high school or AAU. So when they get here, I’m not saying it was easy for them, but this is a whole other level.”
Pitt’s understanding of Stallings’ man-to-man defense concepts continues to underwhelm, especially at levels beyond the starting lineup. The Panthers have to help too often, leave too many open shots and don’t put themselves in good position to get rebounds as a result.
Penn State sophomore Tony Carr had one of the best nights shooting of his career, going 4 for 4 from 3-point range and 6-for-9 from the floor. But Carr also did what he’s better known for, which is driving around defenders and creating space for his teammates. He had five assists doing just that.
“Any team that plays us man-to-man, I feel like I can get into the lane and create open shots for myself and my teammates” Carr said.
But Pitt didn’t play any zone, as Stallings continues to try to establish a foundation in man-to-man defense before expanding the repertoire. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference either way in Monday’s 31-point loss.
GUARDS ON GUARDS
Pitt’s guard play was full of holes on Monday. Penn State’s starting back court shot a combined 15-27 (55.6 percent). Marcus Carr, Cameron Davis, Jonathan Milligan, Parker Stewart and Wilson-Frame had a combined eight turnovers compared to six assists. Davis played 21 minutes without even attempting a shot.
Toward the end of the game, Stallings played Carr and Milligan together, something he hasn’t done yet this year. That’s something to monitor going forward.
Freshman forward Samson George played his first minutes of the season, meaning that all 10 new faces that are eligible have played for the Panthers. George played six minutes, mostly in garbage time and scored one point.
Monty Boykins (four points) and Peace Illegomah (two points) scored their first baskets with the Panthers. Only sophomore Kene Chukwuka has yet to score through four games.
Pitt was out-rebounded, 42-32 by Penn State. The Panthers have been out-rebounded in every game this season. … Pitt had a minus-three turnover differential. They’ve had a negative turnover differential in all four games. … Stewart shot 1 for 7 from the floor and 1 for 5 from 3-point range. He has not made more than one 3-pointer in any game this year and is 3 for 17 (17.6 percent) from beyond the arc. … Luther led the Panthers in rebounding for the third straight game with nine. He had a two-game double-double streak snapped.
Here’s the post-game reactions from Tony Carr, Stallings and Wilson-Frame: