Is Cameron Johnson the Key for Pittsburgh?

Posted by Mick McDonald on January 14th, 2017

When Kevin Stallings took over the Pittsburgh program last spring, it wasn’t the typical rebuilding job most new coaches walk into. Rather, Stallings inherited seniors Jamel Artis and Michael Young, who at this point in the season are the top two scorers in the ACC (Artis – 22.8 PPG; Young – 22.0 PPG). While the first-year head coach surely feels lucky to have two excellent players on hand, he also knows that they alone cannot get Pittsburgh back to the NCAA Tournament. The dynamic duo needs help, and perhaps the most vital piece to solving that problem is redshirt sophomore wing Cameron Johnson, who has become a strong third contributor this year. With so much defensive emphasis placed on containing Artis and Young, Johnson has been able to feast on a steady diet of open looks, shooting a career-best 38.9 percent from three-point range and producing a team-best Offensive Rating of 123.1.

Cameron Johnson knocking down shots is critical for Pittsburgh’s success (Pitt Athletics)

The ACC has illustrated Johnson’s importance to the Pittsburgh offense. In an overtime win over Virginia, he scored 16 points on 4-of-5 shooting from three-point range and grabbed eight rebounds in the Panthers’ biggest victory of the year. However, in Pittsburgh’s three ACC losses — road defeats at Syracuse and Louisville in addition to a home loss to Notre Dame — Johnson shot just 3-of-21 from three-point range. Young and Artis are excellent shooters in their own right — both well over 40 percent from distance — but when Johnson is also knocking down shots, it makes Pittsburgh much tougher to beat. Against the Cavaliers, Johnson nailed four threes and the Panthers won. Against the others, he didn’t and Pittsburgh lost.

Pittsburgh’s NCAA Tournament resume is still a work in progress given a 1-3 ACC start, but there are some nice aspects to it. Wins over Marquette, Virginia and at Maryland should retain their value to the selection committee in March, but the loss to Duquesne is likely to sting for a while. The ACC appears to be a league that could send as many as 10 deserving teams to the Big Dance, so the question for Stallings is whether he can win enough conference games to remain above that cut line. Easier said than done, of course, because Pittsburgh’s upcoming schedule does not let up. The Panthers host Miami this weekend before taking on NC State in Raleigh next week. That’s followed by Louisville and Clemson at home with a trio of road games to North Carolina, Duke and Boston College after that. As Stallings tries to figure out where his Panthers fall in the loaded pecking order of the ACC, keep a close eye on Johnson’s long-distance shooting numbers and whether his shot is falling. If they are, it’s likely that Pittsburgh will end up in the bracket as a very dangerous seed in the #7-#10 range, with three experienced scorers looking to make a final run together.

Mick McDonald (70 Posts)

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