Fatigue could hamper Pitt's hopes of an ACC tournament run
March 7, 2017 12:00 AM
Fatigue could be working against the Pitt Panthers as the starting five, which includes Cameron Johnson, has played 78.3 percent of the team's minutes played this season.
By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Around the time conference tournaments begin in college basketball, a subset of words and phrases make its way into a team’s vocabulary, from the coach down to the student manager. These tournaments are a fresh start. They reinvigorate, reenergize and refocus. They’re a reset, one in which a team can win four or five games and make the NCAA tournament, regardless of how disastrous its season might have been to that point.
For a Pitt team that limped its way to a 15-16 record, its first sub-.500 regular season since 1999-2000, there’s a sense of reassurance in that mindset. Whether its bodies and collective stamina will cooperate on a run to an improbable NCAA tournament berth is another matter entirely.
A thin team that’s down to 10 healthy scholarship players — not including guard Zach Smith, who began the season as a walk-on — and has had to rely overwhelmingly on its five starters the past seven weeks faces the arduous task of trying to win five games in as many days, one that begins Tuesday with a matchup against Georgia Tech in the first round of the ACC tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y. How the Panthers fare with that challenge won’t define their season, but it will dictate how much longer it continues.
“It will be difficult, certainly,” Pitt coach Kevin Stallings said. “That’s why we’re just trying to focus on the one tomorrow night. You hope you can win and then have enough rest to come back and play and play well enough to win again. We’ll worry about the fatigue factor when the fatigue factor becomes an issue. We would have to win at least one game, maybe two, before the fatigue would become an issue.”
This season, Pitt’s top five players in total minutes — Michael Young, Jamel Artis, Cameron Johnson, Sheldon Jeter and Chris Jones — have accounted for 78.3 percent of the team’s minutes played, the highest such percentage of any ACC team. With the exception of three games — each of which saw Jeter foul out — each of the five starters hasn’t played fewer than 25 minutes in a game since conference play began Dec. 31.
Players said Monday that Stallings has shortened practices and workouts to help them preserve energy for the season’s final run.
“There are sometimes where injuries add up and when legs start to get sore,” Johnson said. “Knowing that it’s not just 31 games in, it’s the end of the season, where things matter a little bit more. It lets you push through that pain and soreness a lot more, a lot easier. You can’t really look at it as ‘I’m tired, it’s the end of the season.’ It’s just the end of season. We’ve got to pick it up. We’ve got to play harder. We’ve got to give it all we have.”
Short of a miraculous and wholly unexpected march to the ACC championship, Pitt can become eligible for the National Invitation Tournament if it wins at least two games in Brooklyn. For a team that hasn’t won more than two-consecutive games in ACC play, and would have to play a Virginia team it lost by 25 against in the second round, it’s an imposing hurdle.
“What our mental makeup will be going into these games, we’ll find out probably when we get to Brooklyn and when we get to the gym, if everyone’s ready or not,” Jeter said. “I know one thing — I’m ready. I’m not going up there to lose, either.”
Benching the right move
Even more than the final margin of defeat, Pitt’s 67-42 loss last Saturday at Virginia was most notable for Stallings benching Young and Artis, his two leading scorers, for the first 10 minutes of the game after the two were late to a team breakfast that morning.
The decision, according to Stallings, hasn’t had any kind of sour carryover effect.
“They were fine yesterday at practice,” he said. “I certainly didn’t take the time to ask them. It’s pretty clear-cut. We let the guys know where they stand relative to the things we expect and what the expectations of the program are. I don’t think either one of them were surprised. Maybe they were, but I wouldn’t think they were.”
Some of his players agreed with the move.
“I think so,” Jeter said when asked if Stallings did the right thing. “He’s been doing it all year, really, as far as punishing guys when they don’t do what they’re supposed to. It’s nothing new. He just once again showed there are no exceptions to it.”
Eyeing the future
While the 2016-17 season has yet to end, Stallings has turned something of an eye forward. After a season in which his seniors, particularly his two leading scorers, have been criticized for their lack of leadership, Stallings has had discussions with Johnson and junior forward Ryan Luther about what he expects to be a heightened leadership role for the pair next season on a team featuring at least seven new players.
“I think both of them have what it takes or some of what it takes to lead this program in a good way going forward,” Stallings said. “I think it will require some work from all of us because I don’t think they’ve been in a role of having a strong voice. But they’re going to need to have a strong voice for this program moving forward, especially next year.”
Florida guard commits
Polk State College (Florida) guard Troy Simons, a Pittsburgh native, committed to Pitt Saturday, his coach, Matt Furjanic, confirmed Monday. A 6-foot-1 guard, Simons was the top scorer at the junior-college level last season, averaging 26.3 points per game, while shooting 46 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from 3-point range. He has two years of college eligibility remaining.
Simons becomes the Panthers’ seventh commitment for the 2017 class, meaning that at least one player on the team’s current roster will have to leave for it to adhere to its scholarship limit.
Returning to Brooklyn
Pitt will take part in the 2017 Legends Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the school announced Monday. Joining them in the four-team field are Penn State, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. Each member of that quartet will host a pair of regional-round games at their home venue before traveling to New York for the championship round on Nov. 20-21. The complete schedule for the event will be announced at a later date.
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.
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