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New blog feature announcement: The Mailbag

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 days 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 2 days 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 6 days 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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Semi-rapid reaction: Pitt 75, Yale 70

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 week ago

Pitt moved to 4-1 on the season with a 75-70 victory against Yale Tuesday at the Petersen Events Center. A five-point win against an Ivy League team won't exactly make some uneasy Panthers fans feel better, but Yale's a pretty damn good team from a conference that's stronger than many give it credit for.

But let's get going on the Pitt angle in all of this...

Turning point: My game story was centered around him, but Cam Johnson's 3-pointers on three-consecutive possessions gave Pitt some breathing room it really needed in the final six minutes with Yale making a charge. It didn't decide the game, as Yale got within three with about 50 seconds left, but it was as pivotal a sequence as there was.

Game ball: I'm to the point where I'll probably just copy and paste Mike Young's name in this spot. There'll be games where I'll surely be wrong, like when Rozelle Nix explodes for 30 and 15 in a win at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but I'll take that chance. Anyhow, Young had 24 points and 10 rebounds tonight and was a rebound shy from finishing with a double-double in the first half alone. He's quite good.

Notable stat: 5, as in five WPIAL players on the court at one time tonight. The math is a little inflated on this since I included Young, who only played one season of high school ball in Western PA, but there was also Johnson, Ryan Luther, Sheldon Jeter and Yale's Anthony Dallier, who went to North Allegheny. Local high school hoops gets knocked for not having a high volume of top prospects, which is largely true, but it's something worth noting nonetheless. I'll probably write something again when Pitt plays Virginia Tech and Devin Wilson wanders his way on the court. Be forewarned.

What it means: Johnson's performance was certainly encouraging, perhaps an indication that he's ready to become the team's oft-discussed third scorer. With Artis a threat to penetrate and Young an interior threat to keep defenses honest, Johnson's prowess from deep becomes that much more intriguing. He showcased it tonight, finishing with 15 points and making four of his five attempts from deep (the rest of the team went one of 10). Johnson's emergence, at least offensively, is needed because Pitt has few reliable options beyond him. That lack of depth was apparent tonight, with the Panthers' four non-starters combining for only 44 minutes of a possible 200 (and scoring only seven points, four of which came from Luther).

Defensively, there were some signs of progress, as they held Yale to 40.3 percent shooting and just a shade over one point per possession while preventing the kind of constant penetration they readily gave up in the first four games. They did, however, allow Yale to shoot 40.7 percent from deep, making 11 of its 27 3s. As Pitt adjusts to a new switching defense under Stallings, vacillating between that and a 3-2 zone, these sort of problems aren't unheard of. It becomes a game of whack-a-mole -- once you feel like you've solved one problem in a game, another appears.

What's next: A Friday date with Morehead State. The Eagles are 2-2, with losses in their past two games to Marshall and Evansville. More notably, their coach, Sean Woods, was suspended Tuesday while the school conducts an investigation stemming from complaints about his behavior.

Notable quotables: "You could see it on film, how good they were. They beat Washington. We don't know anything about Washington -- they could be really good or really bad -- but we knew Yale was going to be a good team just from watching them." - Mike Young on Yale

"We believe anybody can get going at any moment. I don't think it's anything where we need to change anything. We just need to get better at what we're doing. Whoever is open is going to shoot and we're going to play for each other. That's just how it's going to go." - Cam Johnson on asserting himself as a third scorer

"It's very hard to limit those guys. We tried to play a little zone in the second half and tried to take the ball out of their hands somewhat, but they found some openings. We tried to pack it in and the kid comes off the bench and makes three 3s. That was just an opportune moment for him." - Yale coach James Jones on Mike Young and Jamel Artis

"We just were taking the first...I don't even know if you would call it a shot; just the first opportunity to get it on goal. I felt like we were playing hockey, just trying to get it on goal. Taking off-balance shots, not playing through contact, going away from contact off one leg. It was like, golly, what's this? We have to learn what works for us and what doesn't." - Kevin Stallings on Pitt's early offensive struggles

"They get confused every once in a while between freedom and confidence and lack of discretion. There's a fine line in there. We need to be aggressive, we need to be confident, but I don't want them shooting at the basket with one eye on them and one eye on me." - Stallings on shot selection

"Certain guys have green lights, certain guys have yellow lights and we won't talk about red lights. If you've got a green light, I don't say much to you. Cam's light is pretty green. There are certain types of shots Cam should take. Driving-across-the-lane, one-legged, going-away-from-the-goal ones aren't. He took a couple of those. But squared-up 3s, even if they're deep because he has range, those are good shots." - Stallings

 

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


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Semi-rapid reaction: Pitt 78, Marquette 75

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 week ago

NEW YORK -- In a game that appeared destined to finish almost any other way a half-hour earlier, Pitt posted a furious, largely one-man second half comeback to defeat Marquette, 78-75, in the consolation game of the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden.

How did it all play out? Well...

Turning point: Michael Young was a man possessed in the second half, scoring 19 points in the final 20 minutes to finish with a career-high 30. A sizable chunk of those points came in a span of 2:25, when the senior forward scored 10 unanswered to tie the game with 10:31 remaining. The game wasn't decided until the final possession, when Andrew Rowsey missed a 3-pointer with three seconds left, but Young single-handedly gave Pitt a chance that it lacked for much of the game up to that point.

Game ball: There's really only one answer to this. In addition to his career scoring day, Young had seven rebounds and three blocks, the latter of which matched a career high. His scoring outburst seemed to ignite other aspects of his game, particularly his typically mediocre interior defense. If he can play close to that level down low the remainder of the season, Pitt's defense may have a shot to be something much better than what it is right now.

Notable stat: 30, which was Marquette's shooting percentage in the second half (missing 21 of its 30 attempts). The Golden Eagles shot 48.6 percent in the first half, which helped them build a 44-33 lead heading into the locker room.

What it means: I don't know what this game is going to mean in the larger scope of the 2016-17 season and I'm not going to try to guess what role it may play. But for the moment, this was a win that gives Pitt a level of pride it would have been sorely lacking had it left MSG with two losses to its name. We're only four games in, so there isn't a whole lot else I can add on that front.

But what I really want to talk about is Young and Artis. My game story and blog entry after last night's loss highlighted how predictable and one-dimensional (or I guess two-dimensional since there are two of them) Pitt's offense is when it simply defers to its two best players, something that, as I saw it, played a big role in a loss to an SMU team that was much better than the Panthers' opponents up to that point. Tonight, though, they combined for a greater percentage of production than they did last night in the three categories I mentioned -- points (65.4), made shots (64.3) and attempted shots (61.4). When that happens in a loss, that reliance is detrimental to the team's overall growth and success. When it comes in a win, those prolific outings are star turns that helped will the team to a win. The final result simply determines how we contort the storyline.

What Pitt has in Young and Artis is real. Through four games, the duo is averaging a combined 43.8 points per game, with Young at 24 and Artis at 19.8. If nothing else, and no matter how poorly things are going, the Panthers have two players that should, theoretically, be able to score against most anyone. But there's a downside to it, of course. Young, for example, had as many points in the two games in New York (52) as every Pitt player not named Jamel Artis did combined. They desperately need some help, at the very least a third scorer. Without it, this team's potential will not come close to being realized.

What's next: A home matchup against Yale next Tuesday. The Bulldogs, ranked 121st by KenPom, opened their season with a 98-90 win at Washington last Sunday.

Notable quotables: "When your back's up against the wall, you've just got to fight, man. Me being a senior and Jamel being a senior, going into the game I told him 'It's now or never.' After the second half, we can't get this game back. We can't get any more games back. Every game our senior year matters. I just wanted to go out, give it my all, really get aggressive and lead my team. Me and Jamel, together, were basically like 'You all follow us. We're going to lead you all and, as a team, we're going to win this game." - Mike Young on his mindset when Pitt was down 15 in the second half

"When he was out of the game, I knew in my mind it was time for me to be aggressive and time for me to step up, to be the senior, to be the all-ACC guy. Whatever you want to say, I had to be that guy for us tonight." - Young on his 10-0 run

"We're going to carry a lot of the load, but we can't win it ourselves. We need every single one of those guys, whether it's Ryan Luther tonight, Sheldon [Jeter] the next game or Cam Johnson tonight or Chris [Jones] tomorrow, whoever -- [Justice] Kithcart, [Damon] Wilson -- we need everybody. We're going to carry a lot of the load, but we need those guys to be just as big and just as important for this team as we are if we're going to be who we want to be." - Young on Pitt needing to build scoring depth

"For us to go out there and be aggressive on the offensive end like we did, and we got about five stops, it helped a lot. I think it wore the team we played tonight out." - Jamel Artis on how Young's run changed the team

"We've got scorers. Me and Mike, we're a tough duo. We can run with anybody in the country. I believe that." - Artis

"Defense won the game for us. I'm really proud of them. I proud of them for having dug in the way they did and showing some pride in the second half and playing defense the way we're going to have to play if we're going to have a chance to have a great year." - Kevin Stallings

"We're fortunate. We've got a lot of things we need to get better at. We're not anywhere close to where we want to be right now. There might be a million reasons for it, but we have to go back and get things shored up rather quickly." - Stallings on where Pitt goes from here

"I learned we're not going to just keep getting slapped in the face. It felt like we were just getting slapped in the face for two days up here, but fortunately, it ended up only being a day and a half. We slapped back in the second half." - Stallings on what he learned about his team

"It's not that new to them; they've been playing their whole life. What I see is a lack of concentration, a lack of anticipation. It's all reactionary; we're not thinking ahead as to what might happen and how we can best defend it. Then in some cases, we're reverting to some habits that aren't the best. We have to keep working on the habits." - Stallings on Pitt still getting acclimated defensively

"I admire him. I think that's how a senior should play. Michael Young, Artis and Jones, their three seniors had 64 points. When they were really struggling, their seniors stepped up big time. I admire what Michael Young did. That's how seniors who are on a mission should play." - Marquette coach (and one of many in the proud line of hated white Duke players) Steve Wojciechowski

 

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


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