In the wake of Pitt's loss to Wisconsin on Friday night in the NCAA Tournament, one question that dogged Panthers fans was this: Where was Ryan Luther?
Initially, no one could make much of his lack of use. Instead, head coach Jamie Dixon opted to play Alonzo Nelson-Ododa and Rafael Maia as the pair got 27 combined minutes - significantly more than their season average. Many, including myself, wondered if Luther was injured or being disciplined. But according to Dixon afterwards, that wasn't the case:
Jamie Dixon hints that Ryan Luther didn’t play more because he was worried about the matchup with Happ.— WPTS Sports (@WPTSSports) March 19, 2016
Paul Zeise also echoed those thoughts after the game was over:
For what it is worth, Dixon was asked about why he didn't play Ryan Luther more and he said it was matter of defensive matchup— Paul Zeise (@PaulZeise) March 19, 2016
The decision to not use Luther, of course, didn't pay off for the Panthers. And in the end, there were several reasons it was a poor decision.
First, Wisconsin big man, Ethan Happ wasn't exactly contained. Initially, the strategy seemed to pay off as Happ was limited to three points and four rebounds in the first half, while also committing a few turnovers. But as the game went on, Happ eventually got going and finished with 15 points and nine rebounds - both above his season averages. While the combination of Nelson-Ododa and Maia may have worked early, it certainly didn't in the second half.
The decision was also a questionable one because it was the complete opposite of what Pitt had done for much of the year. Maia and Nelson-Ododa saw more time earlier in the year, but as the season went on, Luther clearly became the better option and played much more. Nelson-Ododa played 13 minutes against Wisconsin despite only averaging three in the team's last six games and only playing that much in one ACC game all season. Maia has been used more than Nelson-Ododa, but he also saw his minutes shrink considerably with Maia's emergence. He played 14 minutes and that was only the third time he's played double digit minutes since conference play began.
Conversely, Luther's four minutes were the fewest he played since the team's game against Boston College more than two months ago. He had been a staple of the Pitt team, and since that game against the Eagles, he had averaged nearly 18 minutes per game.
I'd also argue the move was a poor one because of the timing. Dixon relied on two guys that weren't playing as much and expected them to be serviceable. It was an especially risky move at this stage because it was a win-or-go-home situation. Making such a decision in a regular season game is one thing. However, to do it with everything at stake was a huge risk that ultimately didn't pay off.
Also, look at what Luther has accomplished lately. He was instrumental in Pitt's ACC Tournament win over Syracuse with 13 points. He was one of the few bright spots on the team with 17 against Louisville. His ten points against Duke helped the Panthers to their biggest win of the year and his 12-point, seven-rebound effort nearly helped upset a Top 15 Miami team. Luther has come up big ever since ACC play began.
Finally, it was a poor choice because of what those Nelson-Ododa and Maia contributed in the game. In eating up 27 minutes, they didn't score a single point while grabbing a modest six rebounds. It's hard to imagine that Luther couldn't have helped on offense. Since that Boston College game where he played only one minute, he was held scoreless only one time - and that was in a six-minute effort against Georgia Tech. Suffice to say, his offense could have been used against Wisconsin. In such a close, low-scoring game, Luther could have made the difference.
Can we guarantee that Pitt wins the game if he's in there? Of course not. Perhaps Happ, after all, has an even bigger game. Obviously, Dixon had reasons to be concerned about Luther's defense against him. But it's possible that he could have been the missing piece on offense that the Panthers so desperately needed.
Am I pinning the entire loss on Dixon's decision? Nope - Pitt had other issues, too. Point guard James Robinson was 3-14 from the field and the Panthers' best offensive player didn't get involved nearly as much. Further, the team was also hurt at the free throw line where Wisconsin had 15 attempts to only seven for the Panthers. But there's no doubt that Luther's lack of minutes was a head-scratcher.
As I said somewhat recently, Dixon has arguably accomplished more than any Pitt coach in any sport over the past 30 years. But in the Wisconsin loss on Friday, his decision to sit Luther didn't pay off for the team.