Pitt's basketball season gets underway tonight as the team officially opens up the Kevin Stallings era with Jamie Dixon moving on to TCU.
We've already been over the schedule and also the starting lineup. As I said then, this is not a year where the team will be guaranteed to get out to a fast start. There are a number of challenging non-conference opponents and if Pitt isn't prepared, they could enter conference play with more losses than usual.
Here's a quick look at the positions/players for this season.
Pitt is relying on a big-time experiment to work with starting previous forward Jamel Artis at guard. He won't only be playing in the backcourt, but he is the team's starting point guard. Earlier, Stephen gave a rundown of some of the pros and cons of using him in such a role. As I've said before, a big concern I had was making sure he didn't look to score as much. But Kevin Stallings said that will not be an issue and, while it was only an exhibition, Artis remained a top scoring option in the team's win over Pitt-Johnstown last weekend. In fact, he led the team with 20 points. My guess is that Artis will do fine in this role.
One thing that I love about him here is his passing ability. He was one of the best, if not the best, passers in terms of court vision for the team last year and is more than capable of setting guys up.
Joining him in the starting rotation is senior Chris Jones at shooting guard. Jones isn't a star, but is a capable player. With the emergence of Cameron Johnson, he doesn't even look like the fourth offensive option out of the starters. But he averaged 6.1 points while shooting just under 43% from the field and can score a little when needed. Pitt needs him to play good defense against opposing guards since Artis could be a liability there trying to keep up with smaller players. Pitt could also get creative, though, when playing on defense and mix things up.
Off the bench, Pitt received a bit of a blow this week when it was announced freshman Crisshawn Clark was out for the season with an injury. I'm not sure how much he would have played but the team is so thin on experience off the bench that as much depth as possible is ideal.
Backing up Artis and Jones will be the likes of Damon Wilson, Justice Kithcart, and Jonathan Milligan. Wilson is really a guy Pitt needs to step up this season. He averaged only 3.3 points last year while shooting an abysmal 34% from the field. Wilson put together some decent games last year, but not enough of them, to be honest. If Artis and Jones stay healthy, they might not need a ton from him. But it would be great for him to take a step forward this year since someone is going to have to step into the starting rotation next year. While Kithcart is a true freshman, he almost has to play to get some experience since the team will need a point guard next season. And we have no real idea what Pitt has in Milligan since he played in only a handful of games last year before redshirting. The bottom line is that Artis and Jones can't play 40 minutes so Pitt will need at least one of these guys to step up.
Starting at forward will be the tandem of small forward Cameron Johnson and power forward Sheldon Jeter. Johnson might be the team's X-factor this year and, barring something like a major injury to someone else, is the lone starter that will be back in 2017-18. He has good size at 6'8" for a small forward and is more of a guard that's capable of shooting three-pointers. He averaged only 4.8 points per game last year but has the ability to do more. Johnson had a pair of 20-point games last year, including a breakout game against Syracuse when he scored a team-high 24 points to defeat the Orange in the ACC Tournament. If you're looking for a breakout guy, this could be it.
Also starting is Jeter, who had a bit of a breakout year himself last season. On the year, he averaged career-highs in just about every category, including points (8.1) and rebounds (4.8). With Artis playing at the point this season and Young at center, Pitt will need his rebounding, especially. Jeter shot 53% from the field last year and it would be great if they can count on him as a high-percentage option in the paint to go along with Young.
Spelling Johnson and Jeter is going to be Ryan Luther and Corey Manigault. Luther did some nice things as a reserve last year (5.2 points, 3.0 rebounds) and was a high-energy player of sorts. He got into double figures in scoring on five occasions and became a pretty important 'glue' guy for the team. Manigault is a question mark as a true freshman but the team would be wise to get him playing time with four of the five starters moving on after this year.
Star Michael Young is the guy here. He's 'only' 6'9", so he'll certainly be undersized against at least a few teams. But he's often able to use that to his advantage when Pitt has the ball. He gets forced into some bad shots trying to score over taller players, but he's also agile enough to get by them and score points. He led the team with 15.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last year and is not only on the conference radar, but even the national scene, to some degree. A few weeks ago, he was named to the preseason watch list for the Karl Malone Award, given to the top power forward in basketball. And as Stephen wrote earlier this year, he is an NBA-type talent. Young can easily play himself into a second-round pick with a strong year.
Who backs Young up is a bit of a question mark for now. Pitt has Rozelle Nix, a transfer who didn't play last year at all. They also have Luther and Manigault to potentially play some minutes there. The Panthers' best hope is that Young is able to play a lot, limiting the need to find out where those minutes go.
I've been a little surprised at many of the prognostications for Pitt this year, to be honest - most of which have the team out of the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers start four seniors and return most of what they had last year - a year in which they made the NCAAs. Losing point guard James Robinson hurts to some degree but the Panthers are replacing him with Artis, who is a bigger, more dynamic player. And in he and Young, the team has a legit one-two punch.
And while much is being made of losing head coach Jamie Dixon, the Panthers sort of hit a wall in recent years in terms of being just good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but not able to do much of anything once they got there. With the type of talent in the starting lineup on this team, I think that most coaches would be able to get them to the Big Dance.
One thing I like that's been said quite a bit by the players is that they're looking forward to being able to play a looser, freer style under Stallings without fear of making mistakes, etc. Dixon was a very successful coach so the book is still out on if that will work out or not. But in general, it's probably better that the players feel a little bit more relaxed and the up-tempo style of Stallings may also be beneficial.
The non-conference schedule is challenging and the major caveat, of course, is injuries. If Pitt lost a key player due to an injury, all bets are off just because they aren't a wildly deep team. But aside from that, I fully expect this team to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Should they do that, they might even be able to make a little noise with such a senior-laden team.