PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s chances of getting off to a good start in conference play took a huge hit on Saturday, despite not starting for two more weeks.
After Pitt’s 72-51 win over McNeese State on Saturday, Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings announced that senior forward Ryan Luther will miss “at least” two to three weeks with a stress reaction in his right foot.
If there is one player Pitt could ill afford to lose this season, it was Luther. He leads the team in points, rebounds, block, steals, minutes and pretty much anything else you’d care to name.
He’s the only four-year senior on a squad that includes seven freshman. He’s the only player taller than 6-foot-6 that’s averaging more than 15 minutes per game. He’s basically everything to a young team that was probably going to struggle in league play even with him. Now, the outlook has decidedly darkened for the near future.
But in some ways, it’ll be a productive glimpse into the future for nut just the fans, but for Stallings and the coaching staff, as well. This season was always going to be more about developing players and fundamental habits for 2018-19 than it was stacking wins.
In that regard, everyone involved will get an extended sneak peak at what the Panthers will have to work with in the paint after Luther moves on.
INTO THE FIRE
Saturday against McNeese State, it wasn’t very pretty. The primary recipients of additional playing time in Luther’s absence were freshmen forwards Terrell Brown and Peace Ilegomah, who both set new career highs in minutes.
Brown started and played 24 minutes while scoring two points on 1 of 5 shooting. He grabbed seven rebounds and had two blocks, four assists and a turnover. Ilegomah made his only field goal and was 1 of 2 at the free-throw line for three points. He also had two rebounds, three blocks, one assist and two turnovers. Kene Chukwuka also contributed his usual 17 minutes per night, with no points and four rebounds.
Those are pretty much Pitt’s only realistic options as centers, and they combined for five points and 13 rebounds in 57 minutes of playing time. That’s just not enough offense, and though Pitt easily beat McNeese State thanks to Jared Wilson-Frame’s ridiculous second half, Pitt’s inside issues loom large. They’re exacerbated by the fact that McNeese didn’t play a single player taller than 6-foot-8.
Pitt starts conference play with Miami on Dec. 30, Louisville on Jan. 2 and Virginia on Jan. 6. Miami has 6-foot-11 sophomore Dewan Huell, who is averaging 13.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Louisville 7-footer Anas Mahmoud is averaging 9.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game. Virginia sophomore Mamadi Diakite is 6-foot-9.
Pitt’s young big men are going to get a very early test when it comes to what life will be like in the ACC.
Seeing exactly what they have in Brown, Chukwuka and Ilegomah can also be beneficial to the coaching staff. Stallings is already adding 6-foot-9 forward Bryce Golden to the team in the Class of 2018, along with junior college point guard Danya Kingsby. The Panthers have at least one more scholarship to work with in the Class of 2018, and a look at the team’s post play sans-Luther may help the coaching staff prioritize which position needs the last scholarship.
BIG MAN ON CAMPUS
In Luther’s absence, Wilson-Frame unquestionably stepped up as a leader of the team. As a junior on a team full of freshmen, that should be expected. But a lot of this is new to Wilson-Frame, too, after spending his first two seasons in junior college.
There have obviously been physical adjustments to his game that he’s had to make, but Wilson-Frame talked on Saturday about a mental hurdle that he’s had to overcome. He explained that in a junior college — any junior college, not just Northwest Florida State — everyone involved is all about doing what they need to in order to advance to the next level.
It took some time for him to readjust to an environment where the team concept came first. Making that change has helped him be a more vocal and enthusiastic leader.
“Here, everybody cares about each other,” he said. “One of the transitions I had to make was just mentally relaxing and being able to trust people again 100 percent.”