In their latest on again, off again trick, Pitt's offense returned to form in a 90-71 win on Sunday to move the Panthers to 17-4 on the season.
That offense, by the way, came without Michael Young, the team's leading scorer, making a single basket in the first half. Sidelined for a good chunk of the first 20 minutes with a nasty cut to his face, Young went scoreless and the Panthers still held a nine-point halftime advantage.
How did they do that, particularly when the offense has struggled so much? Forward Sheldon Jeter had a monster game leading the Panthers with 23 points and seven boards. Young and Jamel Artis took a back seat, scoring a somewhat modest combined 24 points and collecting 13 boards. It's also worth pointing out that Pitt got some good production from Ryan Luther, Damon Wilson, and Cameron Johnson off the bench as that trio combined for 26 points on 10-17 shooting. Luther in particular continues to show he deserves some minutes. He still makes some mistakes (he had a particularly bad turnover in transition) but I think that some of that will get cleaned up with more experience and more playing time. I'm not advocating for Pitt to play him just to get him time, but I do believe that some of his problems can be attributed to a lack of playing time.
In an effort to get some more offense early on where Pitt has had some problems, Jamie Dixon went with a smaller starting lineup, starting Jeter in place of center Rafael Maia. Maia brings some hustle to the defensive end, but has been nearly invisible on offense with a total of seven points in the team's six games heading into this one. The move paid off instantly with Jeter scoring 13 of the team's first 17 points. James Robinson, too, played very well. He even outdid himself with a better-than-usual (which is saying something for him) assist-to-turnover ratio of 11 assists to zero giveaways. James Robinson is not everyone's favorite point guard, but there is one thing he does better than almost anyone else in the country: get the ball in his teammates hands to score without turning the ball over. He scores when he needs to, but while he struggles with his shot at times, he's the epitome of a floor general.
Speaking of turnovers, that was another thing Pitt had going in its favor. An increased intensity on defense forced 20 turnovers by Virginia Tech and helped aid in the rout. Virginia Tech guard Seth Allen had a game-high 28 points and the starters did their job offensively. But fortunately for Pitt, the Hokies had no real contribution from their bench, scoring a total of four points. Pitt won the bench scoring 29-4 and was just much deeper than Virginia Tech.
Dixon has caught a lot of flak lately as the team has had some problems. But he should also be given some credit here for a move in starting Jeter that couldn't have worked out any better. I don't know what his long-term decision will be but at least against smaller lineups, starting Jeter and giving him more minutes would seem to make good sense. Even if Maia returns to the starting lineup, you have to wonder how much he will play. On Sunday, he was on the court for two minutes. Full disclosure here - Maia was nursing a groin injury so that had an effect. But even before today, he has seen his time cut. Overall, he has played fewer than ten in the past four contests.
We've all harped quite a bit about the need to play either he or Nelson-Ododa key minutes. But with Jeter's emergence this season, the fact is that he's earning more playing time.
Even though the game was a nice one to have and featured an impressive offensive showing from the Panthers, it's still pretty easy to remain grounded based on games like the Clemson and North Carolina State ones where Pitt looked poor. Virginia Tech has had some nice moments this year, but also been blown out in several games. Nice win, but these are games that they should come out on top. What the Panthers need to do is beat some more of the better teams in the conference.
The Panthers' difficult stretch begins now starting with a game next Saturday against ranked Virginia. Pitt will likely fall completely out of the polls this week, but a home win against the Cavaliers would probably get them back in. More importantly, it would give them the statement win they've been looking for this year.