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Pitt needs more from sixth man Ryan Luther

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt's basketball team has seen its ups and downs lately. The Panthers had to score 112 points against a Marshall team that put up 106. There were some blown leads in a last-second defeat at Notre Dame. Then, Pitt upset No. 11 Virginia before losing to a down Syracuse team lately.

In that stretch, Pitt hasn't gotten nearly enough from its sixth man, Ryan Luther.

In case you didn't see it, the Panthers got nothing from their bench in yesterday's loss to Syracuse. Luther, Damon Wilson, Justice Kithcart, and Jonathan Milligan combined for 28 minutes and exactly zero points to go along with three turnovers. Luther is easily the most capable of those players of producing anything but was barely noticeable in his 16 minutes on the court.

What has been noticeable, though, is Luther's drop in the team's last several games. It's even more glaring considering what Luther was doing just last month. The Pitt junior had a tremendous run back in early/mid December, you might recall, and four games against Buffalo, Penn State, Rice, and Omaha, he could do no wrong.

All three of his games where he got into double figures in scoring came in that stretch and he put up a career-best 20 against Rice in that game where he was 8-8 from the field. He also had seven rebounds in two of those contests and despite playing nearly 24 minutes a game, he only averaged a little more than one turnover. Over those four games, he averaged 11.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and an assist per game while shooting a whopping 78% from the field. Remember these numbers because I'm going to reference them later.

By all measures, Luther appeared to be taking the next step as a player and threatening to challenge for major minutes in the rotation. There were calls by some to insert him into the starting lineup over Sheldon Jeter and his rebounding prowess. Since then, though, Pitt has struggled with his utilization and he isn't producing nearly as well as he did to start the season.

Some of this isn't entirely on Luther, mind you, since his minutes have dipped considerably. And being on a team where the starters have been playing so many minutes and eating up so many of the shots at the offensive end, it's easy for the bench to see very limited opportunities. That level of competition is also increasing, of course.

Through the team's first 12 games, he averaged nearly 22 minutes a game. In these last four, he's played about 15 per contest. Even considering that, though, his production hasn't been commensurate with the time he's gotten. And while the starters (particularly Michael Young and Jamel Artis) do take a lot of the shots, as Luther showed in those four games I mentioned, he's capable of getting involved - and that includes other areas like rebounding.

In Pitt's first 12 contests, Luther was scoring about .35 points a minute and over the last four, that's been cut in half. Similarly, his rebounding per game has taken a hit, too (down from .22 rebounds per minute in the first 12 games to about .16 boards in the last four). During that same stretch, one thing that's up is the number you don't want to be - turnovers. Despite not playing very much, Luther's still had seven of those in the last four games and his turnover rate per minute has nearly doubled in those games compared to the first 12.

Remember those four games I talked about where Luther excelled? Compare that to his numbers in these last four - 2.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, .8 assists per game while shooting 36% from the field.

Like I said, the level of competition has to do with a lot of this since three of the team's last four games have been ACC games. But his scoring and turnover numbers on a per-minute basis have been cut in half and doubled, respectively - a large swing. Imagine if, for example, players like Young and Artis had experienced similar cuts in production. The team would easily be 0-4 instead of 2-2.

To be fair, Luther did play a strong game against Virginia with eight points (4-6 from the field) and four rebounds with a pair of steals in only 20 minutes. But Pitt needs him to have those kinds of games all the time and not just sporadically. Plus, Luther also managed three turnovers (tied for his season high), which is simply too many for those types of minutes.

Part of the reason Luther's production is important to track isn't just for this year - it's for next year when he'll be one of the leaders on a pretty depleted team. In 2017-18, the Panthers lose four of their key players in seniors Young, Artis, Chris Jones, and Sheldon Jeter. Luther almost assuredly will not only be thrust into the starting lineup but should be one of the team's top players. Cameron Johnson, the Panthers' No. 3 scorer and a pretty good player, should assume the mantle of best player, but Luther will be right behind him.

Pitt needs him to be productive this year to gain some momentum that will carry over into next season when he's expected to do much more. For that reason, it's imperative that Pitt continue to find ways to get him onto the court and into positions where he can be successful.

Luther has shown he's capable of big things, so it won't be surprising when he gets back to having some better games. He won't ever be a superstar in the mold of a Young or Artis this season, but he is capable of being a big weapon off the bench this year and a solid starter next season. The Panthers have a third wheel in the form of Johnson this year, but they need Luther to provide a little more depth off the bench.

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