PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s 2017 football season ended on Friday, with the Panthers’ dramatic 24-14 victory over No. 2 Miami at Heinz Field.
On Saturday, the focus was squarely on basketball, as the Panthers suited up against Lehigh and got their most convincing win of the 2017-18, improving to 2-4 while downing the Mountain Hawks, 80-68 at Petersen Events Center.
If you’ve been more focused on the dealings of the gridiron Panthers up to this point, I’ll cover the big storylines of the first six games of the Pitt baseball season in my five takeaways.
Pitt’s team is extremely young, with seven freshmen and nine first-time Division I players on the roster. The rotation has typically included freshmen Marcus Carr, Shamiel Stevenson and Parker Stewart, with junior college transfers Jared Wilson-Frame and Kene Chukwuka also seeing big minutes.
It’s added up to not much experience on the floor for the Panthers and they’ve had some notable growing pains. They didn’t perform well at all in the season opener against Navy, lacked intensity in a big building in a 31-point loss to Penn State at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
But there have been some positive moments, as well. The team played well against Oklahoma State in a loss and took care of business in a close game against UC Santa Barbara. The biggest issue that the youth has presented has been inconsistency. Pitt hasn’t played a full 40 minutes of quality offense and defense in any of its games thus far.
Pitt was out-rebounded fairly decisively over the first five games of the season until Ryan Luther spearheaded a turnaround in that department against Lehigh on Saturday, with 10 of his own as Pitt out-boarded the Mountain Hawks, 33-28.
Part of the problem is that Pitt just isn’t very tall, with Terrell Brown at 6-foot-10 the only player taller than Luther, and he’s averaging just 8.5 minutes per game.
The other problem is that Luther hasn’t been quite the force the Panthers need him to be. Though averaging near a double-double (12.2 points and 9.2 rebounds), Kevin Stallings has been left wanting at times.
“He needs to stop worrying about whether he leads us in scoring or rebounding or anything else,” Stallings said after Pitt beat UC Santa Barbara. “He needs to go out there and be the best version of himself.”
Luther did just that on Saturday against Lehigh, leading Pitt with 18 points and 10 rebounds. He was the dominant force inside that Pitt needs him to be, albeit against a smaller opponent.
Parker Stewart came to Pitt as a freshman with the reputation of being an elite 3-point shooter. Through five games, he didn’t look like one as the Tennessee native got off to a 3-for-17 start to his collegiate career from beyond the arc.
But Stewart kept shooting through his struggles and came through with a big 12 points on a 4-for-7 night in the Panthers’ win against Lehigh.
“I haven’t been hitting shots I usually have and I know I can, but I really didn’t change anything on my shot,” Stewart said. “I just shot the ball the same way and hit them. … When you don’t hit shots, sometimes it’s in your head. I just try not to think about it too much, just keep getting extra shots and keep shooting the ball how I’ve been shooting it my whole life.”
Stewart said he thinks the big afternoon against Lehigh can springboard him forward.
“Tonight, after the first one, I was like, ‘I’m OK’ and I just settled in,” he said.
Though Stewart has potential on defense, he remains a more refined player on the offensive side of the ball. Stallings wants him to keep shooting.
“That’s his way that he’s going to help us,” Stallings said. “Not only does he need to shoot them, he needs to make them.”
Another issue with a young team is the tendency to try to think the play instead of just reacting. That typically shows itself on defense, but Milligan thought on Saturday that the Panthers benefited from more intense execution of their back-door sets, which led to a lot of easy layups and trips to the free-throw line.
“We’ve been really emphasizing execution, making hard cuts — doing what we do on offense, but doing it full speed,” Milligan said. “Executing is something that’s probably a little bit new, but I think we’re getting the hang of it. We’re getting better every week in practice and it’s paying off.”
BOARDS ON BOARDS
Though the Panthers have struggled consistently with rebounding, the number of offensive rebounds that they’ve allowed, compared to the number they’ve gotten has been particularly problematic.
Again, the Panthers are small, but getting the young shooters to more carefully pick their shots has been a trouble spot for Stallings.
Against Lehigh, Chukuwka took a 3-pointer with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. He’s 2 for 12 from 3-point range this season. That’s a shot he can make, but without the proper timing and spacing, it’s not one he should be taking unless the Panthers can get players headed to the offensive glass.
Pitt grabbed three offensive rebounds and gave up four to the Mountain Hawks.