Pitt got back on the winning track on Friday night by knocking off cross-town rival, Duquesne, by a score of 76-62. It was a solid performance for the Panthers, and it was one I highlighted that could build some confidence for this young team. Duquesne may not have been the most difficult of non-conference games, but they had some good guards that could have given Pitt some serious problems, but it was the Panthers' guards that stole the show. It was also a quote by Jamie Dixon that stole the press conference. "We're trying to reinvent this team." So what exactly does reinventing the team mean? Let me take a crack at it.
James Robinson logged 38 minutes on Friday night, but it led to a career-high 23 points, including looking very comfortable knocking down shots on the perimeter. It is very early, but James Robinson has been looking to score much more often than it past seasons. Save for an awful shooting day at Indiana on Tuesday, he has been scoring at much higher rate this year with evidence by his 12.6 average. The junior point guard has been turning the ball over at a much higher rate than in year's past (2.6 per game) but he is still pouring in 5.6 assists per game, the highest average in his three years here as the team's lead guard.
With Robinson playing 38 minutes on Friday, it was interesting that Josh Newkirk played 30 minutes himself. So most of the game, Newkirk was on the floor alongside Robinson, and played more of a "combo-guard" role, which allowed him to alternate ball-handling duties, and it gave him a chance to find his shot more. Newkirk had 16 points in each game this past week, and poured in 13 assists to 3 turnovers combined in the two contests. Newkirk seems a lot better when he is playing with Robinson, and not spelling him. He only played 17 minutes a game last year, and is up to playing 26 this year, showing Dixon sees that too.
With those two finding success off of each other, that is where things can get very interesting when Cameron Wright returns to full health. Does Pitt take away the combination of both guards playing together, or do they use a lineup to "go small" and adjust how they play a little. Wright may not be ready to start by Saturday, but he should be ready to play more than just a minute like he did against the Dukes. Chris Jones has been inconsistent at times, but has really done some nice things in Wright's absence. In two games last week, the sophomore is averaging 15 points. His offense is much better than it was last year, but his problems resonate on the defensive end of the floor.
The question with the Wright/Jones spot moving forward, is that do you play their minutes on the wing or play them at the shooting guard spot? On offense, it matters very little between the two positions. In most college basketball offenses, the off guard spot and small forward spot can be interchangeable, it is all about who you can guard. Wright can guard either spot, and it appears Jones struggles defending smaller guards. All this means is that Pitt gains a whole lot of versatility on both sides of the ball when Wright returns to full health. Wright can defend three spots realistically, and it takes pressure off of Jones guarding against smaller lineups.
So where does that leave Jamel Artis? The Wright injury and the suspension of Durand Johnson somewhat led to Pitt experimenting with him playing on the wing, and like Jones, he seems a step slow playing on the perimeter -especially on defense. Artis is a gifted player, and one that is very important to this team. Later in the Duquesne game, Dixon let Artis slide back into a post spot on offense, and he did very well knifing into the soft spots of the zone and making plays inside the arc, rather than hanging out by the three-point line. He nearly posted a double-double, and chipped in four assists. Those are the kind of performances Dixon wants out of the versatile forward.
Jamel Artis could join the rotation of Michael Young and Ryan Luther at the forward spot. Young struggled this week, and spent the better part of both games in foul trouble on the bench. He is still Pitt's best player, and Young needs to stay on the floor with Pitt's thin front line. Luther has been a pleasant surprise, and is definitely worthy of getting significant minutes, and like Artis, could fill the stat sheet in more ways than just scoring. I think these three players give Pitt nice length, and a more athletic front line than we are accustomed to seeing.
The Center spot is where everything comes full circle. Can Pitt expect more big 12 point and 9 rebound games from Joe Uchebo? Probably not. He is still very hampered by his knee. Uchebo is obviously skilled, but is clearly playing at far less than 100% of what he could be. He is 6'10" and has had to resort to layups when wide open instead of dunking the ball like most guys in his position would have done. Derrick Randall can give you 12 rebounds against a solid team like Indiana, or come up with nothing at all against a team like Duquesne - he is that inconsistent. Pitt does not know what they will get out of either player on a game to game basis. With those troubles at this center spot, Pitt would be better served to have Young, Luther, and Artis playing alongside each other in different combinations, while hoping the two big guys can buy them some minutes at times.
Sheldon Jeter seems to have lost his way recently, and Cameron Johnson's minutes will certainly suffer when Wright returns to full strength. Both players, especially Jeter, can still carve out a big role on this team. If the centers remain inconsistent, they will need Jeter to help the three forwards to take on spare minutes left by Uchebo and Randall. Cam Johnson can still get hot in any given game, and can earn minutes by providing three-point shooting.
I think what all this means is that Pitt is currently going to have 11 players that will be competing for minutes. Once conference play starts, that rotation may shift from 11 guys down to 8. These next few games before ACC play could be make or break time for certain players. Personally, I think Pitt will be at their best when Young, Artis, Wright, Newkirk, and Robinson will be on the floor together. Dixon will certainly give lineups like that a look over the course of these next few games. Pitt is trying to "reinvent" themselves, and I think putting their best five players out there, and not forcing minutes from the centers is a good start to making that happen.