I'm still having a problem digesting the hot mess that was the Pitt-Miami fiasco this weekend. Part of the real problem for me was not only that the chance for a seemingly winnable game is gone but that the Panthers looked so abysmal without Ryan Luther and a diminished Michael Young, who clearly isn't 100%.
The bigger issue, of course, is that things go far beyond that one game. Pitt will be without Luther for a couple of weeks and Young isn't going to be 100% right away. And as head coach Kevin Stallings said afterwards, he'll be continuing to wear the mask that hampered him a bit.
In other words, things could get bumpy.
Over the long haul, the Pitt basketball roster is going to need quite a bit of reworking after this season. But in the immediate future, Pitt has limited options. That's part of the problem. The Panthers have really only gone seven deep this year and are down to somewhere around 5 1/2 right now with Luther out and Young playing hurt. Pitt, whether they want to or not, is going to have to bring some more guys into the mix.
After the game, when asked about how Pitt would compensate (specifically, it was asked if Manigault would get Luther's minutes), Stallings said they team may need to go to a smaller lineup. That got me to thinking, what kind of options does he have?
Here are some ideas as I see them:
1. Start Kithcart and/or play him more
Freshman Justice Kithcart hasn't set the world on fire, but let's be honest here - there are few options. At the very least, particularly if Pitt is going small, he is going to have to play more than the six minutes he's averaged in the past three games. Starting Kithcart (along with Johnson, Artis, Jeter, and Young) might seem odd because you're actually penalizing Chris Jones for not much of a reason. But the flipside is that you would add some experience to a paper-thin bench.
Unlike Corey Manigault, Kithcart has played quite a bit this year. He averages about 15 minutes a game and is almost always in double figures (minutes). His assist-to-turnover margin is a close second only to Cam Johnson. He's nowhere near the level of a James Robinson even in terms of just that statistic, but that's a start. As we all know, Kithcart's biggest problem is his shooting and despite all the playing time he's getting, he shoots under 33% from the field. No amount of increased time is going to fix that this year and the best hope here is that, if he plays more this season, he's more of a facilitator and works on merely taking care of the ball and finding open men. Any scenario where Kithcart is asked to score more is simply a foolhardy one.
If Kithcart were able to give Pitt 20 capable minutes a game until Luther returns, that would fix quite a bit. Is that asking a lot? Depends on what your version of 'capable' is. Ten points and five or six assists per game? Too much. Five points and four or five assists? Closer.
If you're in favor of Kithcart starting, this option potentially replaces a starter since it likely means that Jones gets bumped. While replacing a starter right now might seem sort of ridiculous, consider that it would help upgrade the bench a bit and add a little more experience there. Plus, Jones isn't exactly producing a ton as a starter, anyway. But even if you don't start Kithcart, the idea is that he's playing more here and that Artis moves into the frontcourt.
2. Making Corey Manigault a featured player
If he doesn't start, Kithcart would remain the top guard off the bench. In this scenario (and really any scenario), Manigault becomes the top big reserve. Manigault is the top reserve big man, but here, he would play more, spelling both Jeter and Young. If those guys stay out of foul trouble and Young gets back close to his former self, that might not mean more than 15 minutes. Luther himself played less than that at times, after all.
Here, Manigault is the top reserve and Pitt basically maintains the status quo. Same starters playing the same minutes and no moving around. Manigault simply fills the role of Luther. Manigault certainly has not made much of an impact this year but a big reason for that is because he's barely played, only getting on the court for more than five minutes three times this season. His low averages shouldn't be alarming simply because he's not been out there much. Now, I'm not saying he deserves to be playing more. What I am saying is that his low totals are simply a product of not playing. If he plays more, his averages would be better. And as I wrote recently, it's not as if Luther had been tearing things up lately. If Manigault plays 15 mintues a game, the dropoff might not be big as it seems compared to Luther's recent production.
3. Small Ball
As Stallings alluded to, Pitt has the chance to go small. What does that look like? In a nutshell, more of Kithcart, Wilson, and/or Milligan. Maybe on a lesser scale, something like Kithcart, Johnson, Artis, Jeter, and Young, or some combination thereof to start. Then, instead of playing Manigault off the bench much, perhaps everyone simply moves up a spot. For example, if Young needs a break, Jeter moves to center, Artis to power forward, Cam to small forward, and Jones or Milligan comes off the bench to play shooting guard. Or if Artis needs a break, same scenario - guards move up a spot.
Have two guys coming out? Say, Artis and Jeter? Outside of inserting Manigault, perhaps you go with something like Young, Cam, Jones, Milligan/Wilson, and Kithcart. Ideally, I don't see how Pitt takes two bigs out at once barring an injury or foul trouble and doesn't go with Manigault, so I'm not even sure something like this comes to fruition ... at least not for very long. But you get the picture. In a small ball scenario, Artis almost has to leave his point guard role and move somewhere like small forward to make up for the loss of Luther and a diminished Young. If you're not convinced that Door No. 2 with Manigault is a good one, there's simply no other realistic option as a big man off the bench.
Frankly, I'm less enthused about the small ball option unless you have something like Milligan getting hot from three-point range (which is possible). Pitt's backcourt bench has been a weakness all year and asking those guys to do more seems like the wrong way to go. At least with playing Kithcart more, you're limiting it to one guy instead of potentially involving all three.
In the end, this really all comes down to do you want to play the guards more or would you rather play Manigault more. To me, Nix isn't an option other than for maybe 4-5 minutes.
The good news is that Pitt doesn't need these new guys to come in and produce huge games. They can lean on Artis and hope Young returns closer to 100%. Cam, although he hasn't shown it lately, is able to score. What Pitt needs these guys to do is defend capably and make a few buckets. Not much more.
Obviously there can be some mixing and matching here, so Pitt isn't forced to rely only on one of these options. If two bigs exit a game, for example, you could try Manigault and one of the guards. But if you had to choose only one path above, which would it be?