ACC Burning Questions: Pittsburgh Panthers

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 27th, 2016

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Who will replace James Robinson as Pittsburgh’s point guard?

Before departing for his alma mater TCU, Jamie Dixon put together a solid 13-year run as Pittsburgh‘s head coach, taking the Panthers to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances along the way. The best years of Dixon’s tenure occurred in the Big East, with two Sweet Sixteens (2004, 2007) and an Elite Eight (2009) coming on his watch. Since joining the ACC in 2013, the program has experienced a slight but notable drop in both wins and recruiting. But that doesn’t mean that new head coach Kevin Stallings has a complete rebuilding job awaiting him in Pittsburgh. The squad he inherits has plenty of talent and experience returning at all but one position. Unfortunately, that one deficiency is at perhaps the most crucial spot on the floor — point guard. With no obvious choice to replace James Robinson — a four-year starter with an outstanding 3.4 assist/turnover ratio in his career — to whom is Stallings going to give the keys to the Panthers’ offense?

Kevin Stallings claps for the Pitt band as he arrives at his introductory news conference as the new head coach for the Pittsburgh basketball team on Monday, March 28, 2016, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Kevin Stallings has a veteran team to clap for as the new coach for Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

A look at Pittsburgh’s roster reveals several players listed as guards, including three newcomers. The lone holdover to see much backcourt duty is 6’5″ sophomore Damon Wilson. Wilson arrived at school as a four-star wing, but Stallings’ hope is that he can further develop the point guard skills he showed in limited minutes last year backing up Robinson. Among the incoming guards, three-star freshman Justice Kithcart is the only one viewed as someone with the potential to run a high-major college offense. Crisshawn Clark and Jonathan Milligan each sat out last year after starting their careers in junior college, but both are more highly regarded as natural scorers than distributors. They join an already deep wing core that features veteran Chris Jones, a starter in nine games last year, and talented redshirt sophomore Cameron Johnson — a 37.5 percent three-point shooter. Of course, none of the options available sound like a solution to the problem at hand — replacing Robinson. Based on comments made in the preseason, it appears that Stallings will try a position switch to solve his point guard dilemma.

Senior Jamel Artis has spent his entire collegiate career in the frontcourt and has been quite successful there — making the Coaches’ all-ACC third team as a sophomore, and finishing second on the Panthers in both scoring and rebounding as a junior. Artis was also the Panthers’ leader in made three-pointers and was second only behind Robinson in handing out assists. It’s his knack for finding open teammates that leads Stallings to believe that Artis can make the transition to point guard. But given that it is rare for a player to make such a radical position switch so late in his career, the move reeks of desperation from a seasoned coach who is not happy with the more natural choices for the job. Another concerning factor is that Artis’ turnover rate basically matched his assist rate of 19.9 percent last year. That level of production as a point guard would be disastrous to Pitt’s offense. On the positive side, Stallings doesn’t have to worry about losing much in the way of frontcourt production with a move of Artis to the backcourt.

Versatile Jamel Artis may become Pittsburgh's primary ball handler as a senior. (Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)

Versatile Jamel Artis may become Pittsburgh’s primary ball handler as a senior. (Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)

Fellow seniors Michael Young and Sheldon Jeter give Pittsburgh a pair of proven commodities in the post. Young, who is reportedly in the best shape of his career, led the team last year in points and rebounds while being named a member of the third team All-ACC team. Jeter is in a unique position of playing for the coach that originally recruited him four years ago. When Jeter wanted to leave Vanderbilt, Stallings blocked his transfer, forcing the player to attend junior college for a year before resurfacing at Pitt. It now seems that player and coach have buried the hatchet, as the new coach sought out Jeter early in the process of taking over the program. Based on last year’s numbers, Stallings would be wise to put Jeter on the floor as much as possible. Used mostly as a backup to Artis and Young, Jeter only saw 18.6 minutes of action per game, but his tempo-based stats were very impressive. Jeter led the team in offensive rating (120.2), block percentage, and turned the ball over less frequently than anyone on the team. Additionally, he made 57.2 percent of his two-pointers and shot 82.7 percent from the foul line. Providing frontline depth will be junior Ryan Luther and two three-star newcomers — junior college transfer Rozelle Nix and freshman Corey Manigault.

Expectations should be fairly high for Pittsburgh this season. It’s never easy to know how a new coach will mesh with a veteran team, but Stallings seems to have the experience and temperament to make it work. If Artis thrives at the point guard position, we could easily see Pittsburgh as an upper-half ACC finisher and comfortably within the NCAA Tournament field. Even if the point guard issue is not totally resolved, the Panthers have enough talent and experience in other areas to slip into the Big Dance. Going forward, Stallings will likely suffer a down year next season after losing the core of this year’s team, so he’d better start improving the recruiting situation right away. Pitt already has two three-star pledges for next year, but to compete with the upper half of the ACC, he’ll need more stars on those recruiting spreadsheets.

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

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