Pittsburgh Panthers 2017 Preview
Pittsburgh Panthers coach Kevin Stallings … wait … who? What about Jamie Dixon. What about the man who led Pittsburgh to 11 NCAA Tournaments in 13 years and was the cornerstone of the program? In an intriguing twist, Dixon exited in the offseason. He led Pittsburgh to a 21–12 record and to a one-and-done trip to the NCAA Tournament, to return to his alma mater, TCU. This prompted the hiring of Stallings, who spent 17 seasons at Vanderbilt and was the longest-tenured coach in the SEC.
Stallings’ objective is straightforward: He looks to build on Dixon’s success while working toward deeper postseason runs. Dixon-led teams won just one NCAA Tournament game since 2010 and failed to reach a Final Four. Stallings will tap into a background that enabled him to guide Vanderbilt to seven NCAA trips in 17 years, including a spot in the First Four last season. Like Dixon, Stallings has yet to reach a Final Four. Sporting a 332–220 career mark at Vanderbilt, Stallings will employ an up-tempo style that critics felt was missing during the Dixon era. It should be pointed out that Vanderbilt scored only slightly more than Pittsburgh in 2015-16: 75.9 to 75.0. The Panthers return six of their top seven scorers, notably talented interior players Michael Young and Jamel Artis. (Play College Basketball)
Young is the centerpiece for the Panthers. He’s a 6’9″ senior power forward who combines a smooth scoring touch with tenacious rebounding ability. A third-team All-ACC selection, Young is the fourth-leading returning scorer in the league at 15.7 points per game and fourth-leading returning rebounder at 6.9. Given Stallings’ success in grooming big men, including 2016 first-round NBA Draft pick Damian Jones, Young could flourish in his final collegiate season. The same could be said of the 6’7″ Jamel Artis, a senior point-forward who can play near the rim or score from long range (team-best 49 3-pointers). He averaged 14.4 points last season. A 2014-15 third-team All-ACC pick, Artis needs to show more consistency.
A player to watch is senior Sheldon Jeter, 6’8″, who began his career at Vanderbilt under Stallings. His blend of court savvy and athleticism manifested itself in spurts last season. He led the team in blocked shots with 24 and produced big games against Virginia Tech (23 points) and Notre Dame (18). Senior swingman Chris Jones (6.1 ppg) and junior Ryan Luther (team-best .583 shooting percentage) will have expanded roles after coming off the bench in 2015-16.
The big question for the Panthers: Who can step in at point guard for four-year starter James Robinson, the NCAA record holder with a 3.45-to-1 career assist-to-turnover ratio? Sophomore Damon Wilson is the leading candidate. His combination of size (6’5″) and decision-making skills (2.05-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio) fortify the belief that he can lead Pittsburgh’s offense. He scored 20 points against Central Arkansas and dished out seven assists versus Maryland-Eastern Shore, but he must improve his field goal percentage (.345) to round out his game.
Another viable option is highly touted freshman Justice Kithcart. He averaged 24.5 points in the postseason and led his prep team to the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state title. Kithcart is viewed as Pittsburgh’s point guard of the future. Shooting guard Cameron Johnson, a rangy athlete at 6’7″, made the most of limited opportunities as a redshirt freshman. He notably collected 20 points against Boston College in mid-January and 24 against Syracuse in the ACC Tournament. He is fearless in attacking the rim. Damian Jones might be described as an enigma. He scored in double figures in five of his first 12 games last season, then managed to do it only once thereafter. Pittsburgh could use his leadership as it transitions to a new coaching staff.
New coach Kevin Stallings moved swiftly in keeping his three-man recruiting class, all signed by former coach Jamie Dixon, intact. Point guard Justice Kithcart could have an early impact, given that Pittsburgh lost four-year starter James Robinson. Kithcart was dominant in the postseason for Virginia Episcopal School. He averaged 24.5 points per game and led his team to a state title. Corey Manigault, a 6’8″ forward from Suitland, Md., chose Pittsburgh over Maryland and could also vie for early playing time. Junior college transfer Crisshawn Clark is a promising guard who missed last season with a knee injury.
Despite winning 20 or more games in 12 of his 13 seasons, Dixon frustrated fans with early exits in the NCAA Tournament. Time will tell if Stallings, who missed the NCAAs at Vanderbilt from 2013-15, can take the Panthers to the proverbial next level.