Another game, another loss, amirite?
Pitt dropped its fourth straight basketball game tonight - this time to North Carolina State on the road, 79-74.
The Panthers were again sort of a mess in the first half. The struggles, at least, didn't last the entire way through and the team did get a little hotter earlier. But the start was again a slow one as Pitt had 12 points in the first 10+ minutes before finally getting going.
That Maverick Rowan guy is getting to be even more of a pest. He had 21 points and his play in the second half was one of the things that propelled the Wolfpack to victory. Former Pitt recruit. grumble, grumble.
Aside from depth, Pitt's problems are two-fold at this point. The defense isn't good enough and the slow starts continue to plague this team. The Panthers simply are not good enough to spot teams a full 10 or 20 minutes of bad play. Even though they trailed by only one at halftime, they wasted about ten minutes when they could have built up a lead going into the break. North Carolina State wasn't all that impressive in the first half but then they started raining three-pointers in the second half, and that's your ball game. The stagnant starts are beyond frustrating at this point.
The lone encouraging thing for me tonight was seeing the return of Michael Young. Young had his best game in some time with a game-high 25 points on 9-19 shooting. The mask that seemed to hurt him so much in the Miami game was replaced with a better model and it seems to have made a world of difference. Young, too, was probably feeling a little better with some more rest. But it appears he should again be a factor for Pitt, so that's great news, obviously.
Yesterday, I wrote about Pitt's lineup options with Young injured and Ryan Luther out for a couple of weeks with an injury. Of the three options I presented, head coach Kevin Stallings went in a different direction and simply chose to run the starters as much as he possibly could. All of the starters other than Jamel Artis played over 35 minutes and Artis played 34. The bench was a complete non-factor with Justice Kithcart, Damon Wilson, and Corey Manigault playing a combined 18 minutes and registering only one shot.
I don't really mind that strategy, to be honest. Pitt's starters are by far and away the best players with Luther out so playing them as much as possible is fine by me as long as those guys aren't getting worn out. No issues there from my vantage point. I just didn't think Stallings would necessarily go in that direction. But with a close game mostly the entire time, it was also probably difficult to take those guys out.
What I just can't shake the thought that this just doesn't appear to be a desperate team. As I said in the Miami game, Pitt needed that one and they needed this one even more. The bad turnovers, the horrible perimeter defense, etc., are all things the team can't afford to be doing right now. For the life of me, I don't understand the lack of urgency. Now, when you're playing 35 plus minutes a game, you can't exactly go all out every single play. But I just would expect things to be a little tighter, cleaner. Like every possession counts. You don't really get that sense.
One thing that's been brought up quite a bit is the coaching. Many fans believe that Jamie Dixon would have this team in a better position and probably just as many aren't so sure. But a couple of coaching related things stood out to me tonight that I thought were worth a mention.
First, Kevin Stallings' approach, without a doubt, is to let his players play the game. There was a lot of talk in the offseason about Pitt's players being glad to have the shackles off, so to speak. Under Stallings, they wouldn't be afraid to make mistakes for fear of being taken out of the game, etc. That playing a freer style would ultimately make them better. Well, halfway through the season I think we can safely say that's a load of crap. Even the most ardent Dixon haters couldn't reasonably say that Dixon's style would result in worse play. Under this system, the players may feel like they have more freedom but the idea that a looser, more happy-go-lucky system would make this team thrive is just silly at this point. That's not a voice saying that Dixon's teams hadn't plateaued - they had. But I can't with a straight face pretend like this philosophy of letting guys just play is working out.
Perhaps a freer style would work better with a different group of players. But under Stallings where there is seemingly less 'structure', I simply don't see how that has benefited the team this season.
Second, one coaching thing in this game that I found curious was how Pitt approached the final minute of play. The Panthers had just finished giving up another lead and trailed by three points with a little over a minute to play. The emphasis, very clearly, should have been that the team does not need a three-point shot. Instead, Pitt seemed determined from the get go to make sure they would get a three-pointer off. Sheldon Jeter took a three-pointer that was mostly contested and it was a pretty poor shot. The very next trip down the court, still trailing by three, Jamel Artis threw up a three-pointer.
I had less of a problem with Artis' shot, but here's the thing - with about 15 seconds or so left, instead of shooting a three, they took the ball to the basket. Why not try that earlier instead? Pitt actually nearly got a break with the late turnover that gave them another chance to tie things up at the end, but that seemed like the players either weren't told not to force a shot, or they simply didn't listen. There was no reason for Pitt to rush a three-point shot, particularly in the case of Jeter's attempt.
I'll have more on this later but at this point, if Pitt wants to make the NCAA Tournament, they're either going to need a pretty deep ACC Tournament run or pull off a few big upsets to really boost their resume. Losing games against the Syracuses, Miamis, and North Carolina States of the world isn't going to do it. From here on out, Pitt cannot simply win the games they should (which, if we're being honest, I don't even know how many of those there are) and lose to the better teams. They'll need some big upsets over some very good teams to get in.
There just doesn't seem to be any hope in sight. Clemson at home? I mean, I guess. But when you see Louisville, North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, and a top ten Florida State team (wut?) still on the schedule, it's hard to have too much excitement right now. The good thing for Pitt in all honesty is that they have that many quality wins still available on the schedule. But at this point, Pitt not only needs to grab a few of those but also win the games against the weaker teams.
And right now, they're not even doing that.