What started as a fissure between the coaching staff and the players may very well end up as a canyon by the end of the season. Two nights ago, that translated into a 55-point loss at home against the Louisville Cardinals. Even if the Pittsburgh Panthers can figure out a way to fix that issue, that’s not the only one at hand amidst the second worst start to conference play since the Petersen Events Center opened.
While everything trickles down from the growing elephant in the room, the players still ultimately control the decisions they make on the court. This Pitt team has two really good players, but the rest of the roster is mostly role players with a linear skill set or undeveloped players with very little experience. That’s not a winning combination in the ACC, especially this season.
I am going to exclude both sophomore guard Cam Johnson and junior Ryan Luther from this discussion. Why? Because both of those players fulfill their respective roles on the team, making it even more glaring when the other players don’t. The Panthers are like an intricate clock that only ticks if every little piece is functioning properly. In my opinion, senior forwards Michael Young (when not masked) and Jamel Artis along with the aforementioned Johnson and Luther are the only pieces currently “working”.
Let’s start with senior guard Chris Jones. Coming into the season here’s how I would have defined Jones’ game: Streaky three-point shooter, sometimes slasher, pesky on-ball defender. The sometimes slasher part has become a bulk of his game this season as he’s taking 59% of his attempts at the rim, up from 31.1% last season. He’s not even giving himself a chance to be streaky from long distance; only 19% of his attempts are three-pointers, down from 43.7% a season ago. That’s a pretty radical shift for a player to take in their final season.
I can somewhat appreciate his discretion as he’s converting only 10.5% on triples, but if he openly passes up good looks or just stops taking them all together, he’s essentially taking away one of key reasons why he’s on the floor. To date, Jones has attempted just three, three-pointers in seven conference games. That isn’t a typo. He also hasn’t made one since the second game of the season back in mid-November. For reference, last season Jones went 2-4 in Pitts ACC opener against the Syracuse Orange on three-pointers.
The more hesitant and flat-out unwilling Jones is to take three-pointers, especially if they aren’t hotly contested, the more he allows defenses to account for that game-to-game. That positions his defender an extra step or two in the lane which clogs up driving lanes for Young and Artis. It also increases the burden on Johnson as the lone catch-and-release starter.
Senior forward Sheldon Jeter is also struggling to find his place of late. Jeter is the type of player who should standout on the court because of his sheer athleticism, but too many times I don’t notice when he’s on the floor. To be fair, Jeter relies on other players to create scoring opportunities for him, but then why isn’t he more aggressive hunting for those opportunities? Relatively speaking, when his energy sags, it’s more noticeable than any other player.
If you’re in that camp that believes the reserves would take advantage of more opportunity IF they were allowed to play through some mistakes, I am with you. Freshman point guard Justice Kithcart’s game log, in terms of minutes, has looked like this in ACC play: 22, 13, 2, 5, 11, 11, and 19. Besides the other night, he’s not been allowed to play through too many mistakes, at least not consistently. He has anything but a green or even yellow light.
Sophomore guard Damon Wilson plays all-out, for better and for worse, every possession as he may be in audition mode, and I wouldn’t blame him either. The point is that if the starters aren’t going to do the handful of things their asked to do, why not fully vet the “depth” you have?
Look, the likelihood of the Panthers turning this season around is pretty slim from everything we’ve seen. The main driver behind that is more than likely related to the fracture between the coaching staff and the players. Still, if the players at least fulfilled their roles, even by going through the motions, they’d be better off than they are right now.
- Stats courtesy of Hoop-Math.