Paul Zeise: Amazingly, Pitt basketball is fun to watch
January 5, 2017 12:52 PM
Pitt's Chris Jones, Jamel Artis and Michael Young celebrate Wednesday against Virginia. Much of the Panthers' success offensively is because these three, and the rest of the team, have a green light to shoot.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For years, one of the chief complaints about Pitt under Jamie Dixon was that its style of basketball was not fun, not exciting and far too micromanaged. Fans wanted more offense and a faster tempo, which would give the Panthers a better chance to advance deep into the NCAA tournament and attract the top players in the country.
If all of that is true, this should be the greatest era of Pitt basketball because Kevin Stallings already has delivered on that front.
If you want to tell me Stallings wasn’t an inspired hire, isn’t a better coach than Dixon or you didn’t like the way Dixon was pushed out the door, I don’t know that I agree, but I might listen to some of that. But nobody can deny that Pitt is now really fun to watch, and that, given the personalities of this senior class, Stallings is a much better fit than Dixon was.
Dixon spent the past two years struggling with these players, trying to make them value defense more than they do and trying to get them to buy into his structured offense. That plan worked well with many of his previous teams, but not this group. These players are a bit free-spirited and offensive-minded, and it was a constant butting of heads between players and coach. By the end of each of the past two seasons, it didn’t seem like anyone was really having any fun. Stallings came in and recognized the players’ personality immediately and has given them a green light — and they have, in turn, responded with a 12-3 record, in good position for an NCAA tournament bid.
Stallings told his team at the start he’d give them the freedom to play offense the way they liked as long as they work with him and buy in on some other areas, and it appears as if that’s exactly what happened. This group will never be great defensively, but it at least now has some periods where it looks lucid on that side of the court. Stallings mixes his defenses up enough to keep other teams off-balance at times.
Pitt has two players — Mike Young and Jamel Artis — who can combine for 45 to 50 points on any given night, meaning the Panthers have a chance to win on pretty much any given night. Both occasionally take shots that give even Stallings indigestion, but he understands he has to live with some bad shots because Young and Artis are capable of hitting them. Those two are surrounded by four others — Ryan Luther, Sheldon Jeter, Cam Johnson and Chris Jones — who can hit shots and, more importantly, also have a green light to shoot when they’re open. That makes them really tough to guard.
I understand why there have been some awful crowds this year. I understand why there is a backlash among a certain segment of fans who are still loyal to Dixon and why some people have taken a wait and see approach. Now that people have seen this team play, I suspect we will start to see bigger crowds again and a better atmosphere at Petersen Events Center. If we don’t, I’m not sure what people want because Stallings has delivered a fun brand of offensive basketball and has the right players to pull it off.
Wednesday night was the first time this season that Petersen Events Center felt like the good old days, with a large and rowdy crowd watching Pitt score 88 points against the best defensive team in the country, Virginia. But the arena still wasn’t full and the box office was still trying to sell tickets to it right up until tip-off.
Make no mistake, Virginia had no answer for Pitt’s offense. The Panthers spread the Cavaliers out and scored in so many ways that their vaunted pack-line defense was rendered useless. Dixon never beat Virginia, and one reason was he tried to beat the Cavaliers at their own game, grinding out possessions. That approach is a recipe for disaster.
Pitt will do what it did last night to a lot of teams, not just because they have a lot of guys who can shoot but because they are all allowedto shoot. That freedom breeds confidence. Stallings said as much after the game last night when he was asked about Jeter taking two 3s to open the overtime: “He could miss 18 in a row and I’d tell him to keep shooting them because I know he can make them.”
I don’t know where this team is headed, how good they can become or where they will finish in the ACC. Only time will tell us the answers to those questions. What I do know is that the Panthers play an exciting brand of basketball and are a really fun team to watch right now. That’s something I’m not sure I’d ever say given the style they had played for almost two decades.
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