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Semi-rapid reaction: Pitt 84, Buffalo 79

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 days ago

In need of a positive development, Pitt defeated Buffalo, 84-79, Wednesday night at the Petersen Events Center.

It was far from pretty or consistent, but, unlike the Duquesne game last Friday, it was at least a win.

Turning point: This one, somehow, came incredibly late in the game. After leading by 26 in the first half and as many as 16 early in the second half, Pitt's advantage was down to three with 30 seconds remaining. With fewer than 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock, Jamel Artis hit a fallaway jumper along the baseline to give Pitt a two-possession advantage with 25 seconds left. Buffalo ended up hitting a 3-pointer 20 seconds later, but it was too little too late.

Game ball: From a per-minute standpoint, it was Mike Young, who had 17 points and seven rebounds in just 23 minutes, but I'll give the nod to Cam Johnson. He, along with Young, finished with a game-high 17 points and accounted for nearly half of Pitt's made 3s (three of seven). He looked significantly better as the team's third scoring option than he did as the No. 2 scorer against the Dukes.

Notable stat: 10.96, which was Buffalo's turnover percentage Wednesday night (meaning the Bulls turned the ball over on 10.96 percent of its 73 possessions). Entering the night, it was turning it over on 25 percent of its possessions, the sixth-worst mark in Division I. The Bulls had a key piece back tonight in guard CJ Massinburg, which should be taken in consideration, but this sort of reinforces a point about Pitt's defense. In short, it's not going to be one that makes any kind of a living on forcing turnovers, even against relatively sloppy or reckless teams. It's a reality for a longer group that's going to, likely, be spending much of its time in a zone, but it's a reality nonetheless.

What it means: I centered my game story around Pitt's scoring balance, with six players finishing in double figures, so I won't delve into it too much here. Instead, I'll look back at an issue that has reared its ugly head at several points this season -- a low level or complete lack of urgency from a team that, given its experience and components, shouldn't be in this position whatsoever.

This is something Kevin Stallings has referenced at different points this season, most notably after a 76-63 win last month against Morehead State. Against a team headed by an interim whose highest level of head-coaching experience was at a middle-school basketball camp, that lack of focus and intensity isn't a problem. Against a Buffalo team that returned five of its seven leading scorers from a squad that made its second-consecutive NCAA tournament last season, it nearly cost Pitt in a game they could ill afford to lose after the City Game debacle. When you're leading an inferior opponent by 26 in the first half, there's little, if any, excuse for that lead to ever dwindle into single digits, let alone to one. But that's where Pitt, a team with four senior starters, remarkably found itself Wednesday. Though at this point, is it really so remarkable if it keeps happening?

I worry sometimes about stressing on topics like this because, while Stallings is a forthcoming guy, his openness and insistence on this matter makes me wonder if he's using the media to emphasize his message and points of contention to his team. But based on what we've seen this season, he's not wrong. It's something that, until it gets cleaned up, can't be ignored with this team, even on nights in which it wins.

What's next: A matchup Saturday against Penn State in Newark, N.J. KenPom has Pitt as a 70 percent favorite against the Nittany Lions, who lost by 19 at home tonight against George Mason.

Notable quotables: "I'm pretty valuable to this team. I'm a pretty important guy. But there are other guys on this team who can step up. They should have stepped up that night. It happens." - Jamel Artis on what he learned from his one-game suspension

[Ed note: This quote understandably probably rankles some fans, who see it as selfish, arrogant or lacking any semblance of self-awareness. I'll defend Artis for two reasons: 1) as a media member, I love it when any player throws aside insincere platitudes and says what's actually on his mind and 2) he's absolutely right. Pitt looked terrible without him.]

"I believe we can. We just have to trust the offense and find a way to make shots. That's kind of what we were doing earlier in the game. If we just trust the offense a lot more, I don't see why six or seven guys can't hit double figures." - Sheldon Jeter on if the offense is capable of routinely having this kind of balance

"We seem to be having trouble closing the half. We talked about it. We talked about it at practice, we talked about it at the under-four timeout, about it being a really important stretch of the game. We proceeded to, I think, in the last four minutes of the first half, get out-scored, 16-2. After that, it's a game. They've got their head up, they've got confidence." - Kevin Stallings

"The other guys stepped up and played well. It's nice on a night when neither Mike or Jamel had their best game that we had four other guys step up and score in double figures and give us really important baskets and plays." - Stallings

"We still had two or three bone-headed plays where we went one-on-one or tried to take on a set defense when there's nothing there. We just have to learn how to play good offense when the other team is not making it easy, when it's just not going easily and right. I'm not sure we're there yet." - Stallings

"We have an older group that is sometimes happy to hit that cruise control button when they think they can instead of keeping the throttle down and trying to put somebody out of their misery." - Stallings

"I wouldn't call it great. I think it has gotten better. It's a work in progress. I talked to them a little bit after the game tonight. I think they like each other just fine off the court and even on the court, but there's another level of chemistry and togetherness we need to get this group to achieve." - Stallings on Pitt's leadership (or lack thereof)

"We were down 26, but from that point on, we pretty much outplayed them. We felt like we could beat this team coming in." - Buffalo coach Nate Oats

 

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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Semi-rapid reaction: Duquesne 64, Pitt 55

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 week ago

All streaks are destined to come to an end at some point...even Pitt's stranglehold on the City Game. Without Jamel Artis, the Panthers' offense looked ineffective and one-dimensional, at best, and lost, at worst, in a 64-55 loss to Duquesne Friday night that snapped a 15-game win streak in the series.

There's a lot to digest from the Panthers' second, and certainly most surprising, loss of the 2016-17 season. Here's a brief breakdown on how we got here:

Turning point: It seems like a distant and hazy memory at this point, but Pitt was actually beating Duquesne by one with 6:55 remaining, part of a 10-0 run that seemingly returned the local college basketball world to its proper, working order. The Dukes, however, never wavered, getting 3-pointers from Rene Castro and Emile Blackman over the next minute to go up five. The Panthers wouldn't get closer than four the rest of the night, a brief threat that was put down by three free throws from Mike Lewis II after a Ryan Luther foul.

Game ball: Was tempted to go with Chris Jones, who was probably Pitt's most efficient offensive player, but despite Kevin Stallings' criticism of him after the game, I'll go Mike Young. His eight-of-21 showing wasn't a great look, but without Artis, I'm not sure what some people expect. Without the team's No. 2 scorer, the Panthers became largely a one-man operation, but that's not the fault of Young, nor is his inefficient night. There's only so much one player, talented as he may be, can do.

Notable stat: 13.6, Pitt's shooting percentage from 3-point range. The Panthers missed 19 of their 22 attempts in the loss. That includes a 0 of 12 mark in the second half.

What it means: Just as there shouldn't have been too much jubilation over the Maryland win, there shouldn't be too much of a sky-is-falling mindset over this loss. The college basketball season is a long one, which leaves superior teams open to getting beaten on a given night. It all, at some point, sort of figures itself out to the point where, at the end of the year, a team's record is an accurate reflection of what it is.

With that being said, what you saw tonight was a team that is largely incapable of executing a reasonably decent offense over the course of a game without one of its two best players. We've written before that Pitt is somewhat one-dimensional relying on Young and Artis for points. Tonight, with Artis on the bench serving a one-game suspension, Pitt was quite literally one-dimensional. We've already touched on Young. Cam Johnson is a great third option, but he works best when he has more versatile scoring options on the court with him that allow him to get good looks from 3. When he has to take on a greater share of the offensive load, at this stage of his young career, he's the player you saw tonight: forcing up awkward and off-target shots with bodies around him, finishing five of 16 for 14 points. Young made eight of the team's 20 field goals, with the rest of the Panthers going a combined 12 of 39 (30.8 percent) for 36 points.

Though there's still an almost-full season for many of Pitt's younger players to develop, Friday night was also a not-so-encouraging look at where this program may be next season without Young and Artis. Because without even one of those guys, the present is evidently pretty ugly.

What’s next: A game Wednesday at home against Buffalo. KenPom gives Pitt an 82 percent chance of winning, with a projected final score of 78-68. But that only means so much when the Panthers just lost to Duquesne by as many points as the Dukes lost to UMBC two nights earlier.

Notable quotables: "You definitely know about it when you come here. We know the history of it and we know they win it a lot. We tried to change that tonight." - Duquesne guard Tarin Smith on Pitt's streak in the City Game

"There was nothing about our play that was good enough to win. We weren't good enough on offense, we didn't shoot it well enough, we didn't do anything well enough offensively to win the game." - Pitt coach Kevin Stallings

"It's really the first time we've had a game where Mike has been off. Mike just didn't have a good night. It's unfair to put the pack on his shoulders every night and expect him to deliver the way he's been delivering. We needed Mike to do what he normally does and some other guys to do a little bit more. Mike had a bad night. I think that caused panic in our team. We didn't have enough firepower to solve problems." - Stallings

"It hurts a lot now. I know it hurts Mike and the other seniors. But there's a lot of basketball left to play. It hurts now, but we've got to turn it into a positive." - Pitt guard Chris Jones

"That's a great win for our program, our university, our students, our alumni. As you guys have printed and written and said, it hasn't been much of a rivalry. It is now." - Duquesne coach Jim Ferry

 

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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New blog feature announcement: The Mailbag

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 week ago

There’s been a bit of a delay in getting this going, but, better late than never, it’s time to unveil the idea of the Pitt basketball mailbag.

My editors and I wanted some kind of Q&A feature to accompany our Pitt basketball coverage (we’ll probably end up doing the same in that spot with the oblong ball at some point with our new Pitt football writer, Brian Batko, in place). A few weeks ago, an informal and unscientific Twitter poll revealed you guys, by a two-to-one margin, would rather have a mailbag than a live chat. As someone who (barely) would have preferred a live chat, it’s a voting process I believe was rigged and infiltrated with dozens of people voting illegally, but I’ll be magnanimous and accept the results of the election, a decision that upholds the integrity and validity of our Twitter democracy.

Anyhow, we’ll plan on having a mailbag a week. You all can send me your questions via Twitter (@CraigMeyerPG) or email (cmeyer@post-gazette.com). It will obviously be Pitt-focused, but if there’s other stuff you guys want to ask me -- from the world of sports or outside of it -- that’s also totally cool. If we can’t have a little fun with this, that kind of defeats the purpose of a mailbag.

With the Maryland win last night and the City Game Friday, I figured this would be a good week to debut it. The inaugural mailbag will run this Friday, but we’re working on getting a permanent day of the week set. It may end up being Friday, but I’ll keep you all posted.

In the meantime, send any and all questions you may have.

 

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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Semi-rapid reaction: Pitt 73, Maryland 59

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 week ago

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- In a season without one to this point, Pitt picked up something resembling a signature win with a 73-59 win against Maryland that, in the final 30 minutes of action, was rarely in doubt.

The Panthers now get to head back home after serving em in the home of the Terrapins (I know that's a forced reference and that Jay Z was talking about selling drugs and not getting wins, but Pitt rarely plays Maryland. Let me have this moment).

Turning point: An elongated one if there ever was one. Maryland took an early 13-7 lead, but Pitt ended the first half on a 38-11 run that gave it a 45-24 lead at halftime. In that span, the Panthers made 15 of their 21 shots and the Terrapins, after making five of their first six shots, missed 16 of their final 20 field goal attempts of the half. In fact, they missed 17 of their 18 3s from the 11:45 mark of the first half until the 11:49 mark of the second half.

Game ball: A lot of possibilities here, but I'll go with Jamel Artis. A Baltimore native who was never heavily recruited by the Terps -- never receiving as much as a scholarship offer -- Artis scored 22 points, 15 of which came in the first half, with eight of those 15 coming in a critical 55-second span that increased Pitt's lead from six to 14. He said, based on his experiences with Maryland, he played with a chip on his shoulder. It showed, in a good way.

Notable stat: Five, the number of steals Pitt recorded against Maryland. By virtue of being a team that's now primarily playing zone, the Panthers don't force a bunch of turnovers and entering tonight, had the 10th-lowest steal percentage in Division I (getting steals on 4.6 percent of possessions). Against a team with a ball handler like Melo Trimble, getting that many takeaways is impressive. Tuesday, it was equally crucial, as Pitt outscored Maryland in points off turnovers, 18-5.

What it means: I'm always one to caution against over-magnifying wins this early in the season, largely because we don't know how good some of these teams are. Though it's in a different sport, it's how we go from bold declarations of how "Texas is back!" to poor Charlie Strong getting fired within a span of 10 weeks because nobody knew Notre Dame was a pretty crap team that would end up going to go 4-8.

Is Maryland good? There's reason to think so. The Terps probably weren't as good as their 7-0 record since five of those wins came by six points or fewer, but they're still a top-25 squad with one of the country's best guards leading their offense. It's a road win against a good power-conference opponent that, once the NCAA tournament rolls around, could be a nice resume boost for a team that could very well need it given the nuclear absurdity that is its conference this season.

The win further showed how insane and sometimes unstoppable Pitt's offense is when Young and Artis are both scoring. Maybe the most revealing thing came on defense, where the Panthers held Maryland to 34.4 percent shooting while Trimble and Anthony Cowan combined to miss 16 of their 24 shots. Much of that success can be traced to scheme. Kevin Stallings has waffled on his defensive plans as he continues to figure out his personnel, but it's becoming increasingly clear that zone is the best fit for this group, with its notable length and relative lack of speed in the backcourt. Against Maryland, it limited Trimble's driving ability and often forced the Terps to settle for 3s, a fair potion of which were open but just didn't go in. Whether zone will be the best fit for Pitt's future opponents remains to be seen. But based on the roster and how its defense has looked so far, it seems to be the most logical fit.

What's next: The City Game Friday against Duquesne. Anybody who follows Pitt basketball knows of the series' recent history, with the Panthers taking 15 in a row and 25 of the past 27. KenPom gives Pitt an 86 percent chance of winning, with a projected final score of 81-69. Given the Dukes' struggles so far this season, that may be conservative.

Notable quotables: "I've got a lot more to show. I'm ready for the ACC. I don't like how they picked us 12th. This is a great test tonight. I think me and my guys came out and played hard." - Jamel Artis

"Our plan was to take away the 3, take away the drive by being in the gap, getting back in transition as fast as possible because we knew him and Cowan would push the ball up the court. We scouted them and the game plan was to try take away as much away from him as possible." - Mike Young

"I play at home a lot during the year. I get 15, 20-something games at home. He gets one, maybe two close to home. It was big for him. I was really proud of him. He's the reason why we got that lead and got up big. He was the bus driver tonight. I was a bus rider and he just kind of took us." - Young on if he could tell what the game meant to Artis

"A lot, confidence wise. You believe in yourself, you believe in the team and you believe in what you want to accomplish, but when you win a game like this, the first game on the road, we had a lot of close games before this. We went up to New York and lost and won. Just coming here, a true road game with their fans, it was so fun to play in. Winning this game, I think it's going to do a lot for our team. It's a confidence builder, knowing we can beat a really good team." - Young on what the win could mean

"Just having fun. The dunk at the end, I don't know if people would take it as disrespect or anything. I really didn't see how much time was left on the clock. I was just playing and finishing the game out until the end. That's what I'm going to do every game. I was just having fun and interacting with fans. It's a true road game, I'm a senior, this is my last year, this will be my last time playing here and we won. I just wanted to have fun with it." - Young on what prompted his shushing gesture after his late dunk

"Hopefully it's one of those that shows up really well later in the year." - Kevin Stallings on the importance of the win

"When you have prolific scorers, one of the benefits is they can get you a bucket when things are down. One of the drawbacks is sometimes when they try to get that bucket when things are down, they run into traffic or, in the case tonight, Maryland's got some really big guys, so they're walling up on Mike and making it difficult for him." - Stallings on playing too much one-on-one ball in the second half

"We couldn't scare out of our zone. It was doing what we needed it to do. If they made shots, they made shots. But it was doing what we needed it to do because Melo wasn't on top of our rim all night. He wasn't standing at the foul line all night. That's what we needed." - Stallings on Pitt's defense

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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Semi-rapid reaction: Pitt 76, Morehead State 63

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 weeks ago

With its most challenging game of the season looming Tuesday, Pitt kind-of-but-didn't-totally handle business Friday night in a 76-63 win against Morehead State that allowed me to turn to a Thanksgiving-themed lede.

On to more important matters...

Turning point: From a game flow standpoint, it was sort of a blowout. Pitt never trailed and raced out to a 15-5 lead. The closest thing to uncertainty came in the second half, when the Eagles clawed back within seven with 6:57 remaining. Pitt, to its credit, quickly regrouped, getting one free throw each from Chris Jones and Jamel Artis, and a 3-pointer from Cam Johnson to get its lead back up to 12 within 71 seconds.

Game ball: Mike Young. The man continues to get buckets at a mesmerizing frequency and the game is, and always will be, about getting buckets. He had a game-high 20 points on eight of 14 shooting, regularly capitalizing on favorable matchups against players who, in some cases, were seven or more inches shorter than him. Jamel Artis (17 points) and Cam Johnson (16) also played quite well and, hey, how about Jonathan Milligan and his nine points in 12 minutes?

Notable stat: 15, as in 15 assists on 15 made field goals in the first half for Pitt. That kind of ball movement is not only an indication of an offense that works to get teammates the best possible shot, but it's also pretty much the ideal iteration of Kevin Stallings' offense, something he mentioned in the post-game press conference. Actually, I'm pretty sure most any coach would take that kind of a line. Regardless, it's a hell of an impressive feat.

Pitt also averaged 1.27 points per possession Friday, its best mark of the season.

What it means: It's another win against a team that Pitt has no excuse not to beat, but just as it has been in each of these types of games, there was a wrinkle to it that emerged during the game and was confirmed after it. In this case, it was the Panthers' inability to put away an opponent when given the chance, a so-called killer instinct. I didn't follow this program religiously until this season, only as a college basketball nut living in Pittsburgh beforehand, but this seems to be a problem with which fans are well-versed.

With a new coach, there was perhaps some belief or hope it could change, but Stallings noted this was something he heard in his months on the job and that he has seen at this early point in the season. Take tonight, for instance. Pitt was up 16 points at halftime and had the chance to extend that in the first five minutes of the second half against an overmatched team with an interim head coach who had never been a head coach at something other than a middle-school basketball camp. Morehead State, much to its players' and coach's credit, never completely wavered and got within seven points in the final seven minutes in a game in which it really had no business doing so. Stallings said after the game he's going to do what he can to get his players to display the same kind of intensity, passion and effort they do in a tight game when they're up 20 against a no-name foe. But on a team anchored around four seniors, should this kind of a situation even exist in the first place?

What's next: A visit to Maryland next Tuesday in what will be the Panthers' first true road game of the season. The Terrapins, ranked No. 23 in the USA Today coaches poll, are being given a 64 percent chance of winning, according to KenPom, with a projected final score of 75-71.

Notable quotables: "We definitely played in spurts offensively. It was just on us. I think playing more with energy was the key. When we started making shots, we started to pick up more energy and then we would go on a run. If we missed a shot or two, the energy kind of subsided and we would stop scoring." - Cam Johnson

"I was a little disappointed that we sort of had them on the ropes there at halftime and didn't come out and put them away. That was something we talked a lot about. We don't show any killer instinct yet. I haven't seen it. We talked about it. We really want to get rid of people when we have an opportunity to. I'm told it's a longstanding habit. I don't know. I haven't been around here very long. I'm told this group has historically been this way a bit. I've got to figure out some ways to get them to change that." - Kevin Stallings

"We just have to play with more passion, more energy and more effort defensively, and not wanting things to come easy to us. We can't stand around and hope things are easy and want the other team to go away on their own. Because that team plays hard, Morehead State does. They play hard. They're deficient in size, but they're not deficient in how hard they play. What you have to do in a situation like that is you have to go and try to play harder than them and then hope your physical attributes allow you to create separation. We were never threatened, but it still would have felt better if we would have gone out in the second half and created more separation. We weren't able to do that." - Stallings

"This group is really capable of making the game easy. It looked easy in the first half. If they want to make it look easy and want to play in a way to make it look easy, then it will be easy. If they want to make it hard, they can make it hard. It's really up to them. I know that sounds kind of silly, but that's kind of the way it is." - Stallings

"I knew this team was an unbelievable layup, dunk, post-up and free-throw-shooting team. I knew they were going to beat us if we allowed them to do that type of stuff -- to foul and let the ball get in the post consistently. What I was hopeful for was they wouldn't go nine of 12 from 3 in the first half. But sometimes you don't always get what you want." - Morehead State interim head coach Preston Spradlin

"No, honestly. I was a little surprised it was at seven just because I was trying not to look at the score. I was really trying to make sure we were doing what we were supposed to do. I think I looked over at the bench and said 'Seven?' I couldn't believe it. You can't think about winning and losing and that's really what I tried not to think about in this game." - Spradlin on if he sensed a possible upset down seven in the second half

"This game is not a measuring stick. It's not like throwing the baby out with the bath water. I'm from Eastern Kentucky. We say stuff like that." - Spradlin

"We told our kids 'Hey, man, if they beat us shooting jumpers, they beat us shooting jumpers.' They beat us shooting jumpers tonight. It is what it is. They have a shooting night anywhere less than this...I mean, they shot 58 percent from the 3. The Warriors don't do that. That's unbelievable." - Spradlin

"I used to coach at camps all the time. I was pretty good at it. I don't want to share my record, but I was pretty good at coaching sixth-graders and things like that." - Spradlin on the last time he was a head coach

Spradlin has inherited a very difficult situation with Sean Woods suddenly suspended while the school conducts an investigation surrounding complaints it has received about him. I have no clue what Spradlin's future holds and what direction Morehead State will turn if Woods is indeed let go. But, holy hell, Spradlin was a joy of a post-game quote. We need more people like him in sports, at all levels.

 

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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