The Virginia Cavaliers look to rebound from a tough loss against Florida State when they hit the road to take on the Pittsburgh Panthers tonight at 9PM. The game will air on the ACC Network (click for affiliates) and Watch ESPN (subject to blackout).
Following last year’s NCAA first round loss, Jamie Dixon left Pitt to take the head coaching job at TCU. Although this seems like a step down for a head coach, TCU is Dixon’s alma mater, so it isn’t all that surprising. The Panthers hired former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings to replace Dixon. Since joining the ACC, Pitt has not beaten the Hoos. Tony Bennett’s Hoos are 4-0 against Pitt, including a win in the 2014 ACC Semifinals. Pitt is 11-3 (0-1) on the season, coming off a home loss to Notre Dame in overtime. They’ve also lost to SMU (no shame) and Duquesne (lots of shame). They've beaten Marquette and crushed Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Other than the new head coach, this year’s Pitt team is very similar to last year’s team. The biggest change is the loss of PG James Robinson. Besides acting as the emotional leader of the team, Robinson led the team in assists and steals and was 3rd in scoring. His loss has hurt most on the defensive end, where the Panthers have fallen from 54th nationally to 127th nationally. Obviously, the coaching change could be a factor in that, but Stallings’ teams at Vanderbilt were generally very good defensively and ranked 23rd nationally last year. So, the difference is likely more about the players than the coach.
Robinson’s PG duties have fallen largely to Jamel Artis, a 6’7” wing who has limited experience playing PG. He’s a very good scorer though, and does lead the team with 3.5 apg. He is also averaging 21 points per game. Amazingly, that only ranks him 2nd on the team, as big man Michael Young is averaging almost 23 points per game.
At 6’9” 235, Young can be tough to handle inside. In addition, he is a 39% shooter from 3 point range for his career. Through his first 3 years, he had just 56 attempts, so he wasn’t really much of a threat from out there. So far this year, he is shooting 45% on 44 attempts. It other words, he’s shooting a lot more and making a lot more. That may not be sustainable.
The entire team is shooting a lot more from three. Last year, they averaged 18 3 point attempts per game. Thus far this year, they are well over 21 attempts per game and they are more accurate as well, improving their 3PT shooting from 35% to 37%. Pitt has also sped up their game a bit, ranking 244th in tempo, after ranking below 300 for the past 7 years. This has helped them average 82 points per game, up from 75 a year ago. They aren’t actually a better offensive team, though. They rank 32nd in offensive efficiency (according to kenpom.com) after ranking 28th last year. Still, the change in shot selection and tempo are probably due to the coaching change.
For the past 2 games, Artis has been starting on the wing, with freshman Justice Kithcart starting at PG. Kithcart, though, struggled against Notre Dame, going scoreless in 22 minutes with 3 rebounds and 2 assists. He’s a good defender and good in transition, but he struggles in a half-court game. It remains to be seen how much playing time he’ll get against the Hoos, especially in light of his struggles against the Irish.
Cameron Johnson is the 3rd leading scorer. Johnson is a redshirt sophomore who received a medical redshirt after playing 7 games as a freshman. Last year, he played about 10 minutes per game, but averaged 5 points per game on 37% from downtown. With more playing time this year, his scoring has risen to 12 points per game, and his 3 point % is up to about 41%. Because Artis (6’7” 215) will likely see Devon Hall for most of the game, Johnson presents a tough matchup for the Hoos. He’s 6’8”, but not as strong as Artis and he’s more of a jump-shooter than Artis is. Darius Thompson figures to be the matchup, but he’s giving up a lot of size.
The final members of the rotation are Shelden Jeter and Chris Jones. Jeter is the top rebounder on the team, but doesn’t score much. Jeter is just a 36% shooter, which is very poor for an interior player. Jeter is 9/28 from 3, but has made 35% for his career. Kithcart’s entry to the starting 5 has pushed Jones to 6th man. He’s a slasher who can get to the rim, but too often settles for mid-range jump shots. He’s also just 2/17 from 3 this year and is a poor FT shooter. Backup PF Ryan Luther will also get some run. He’s a stretch-4 who can block some shots but isn’t strong on the glass or as a man-to-man defender. Luther is 8/18 (44%) from 3 on the season.
Artis and Young are combining for 45 points per game so far this year, and both have been very efficient. Against Notre Dame, they combined for 50 points, and it took them 41 shot attempts to get there. As a team, Pitt shot just 37.5% against the Irish. The only reason the game was close was because Pitt was 12/31 (38%) from downtown. That is the kind of performance it will likely take for Pitt to stay with the Hoos, because points in the paint are going to be tough to come by against the Pack Line.
Offensively, the Hoos need to play their game. Pitt doesn’t play a high pressure defense, so the Hoos will be patient. They need to get the ball inside whenever possible. We know the Hoos do not have much of an interior presence on offense, but Young is a poor defender and Jeter has a tendency to get into foul trouble (as does Luther).
Virginia needs to be wary of Pitt’s reliance on the 3 this year (37% of their shots come from behind the arc) and pressure those shots. And since Pitt doesn't crash the offensive glass very much, the Hoos can afford to let a guard or two slip out on jump shots. Any easy points the Hoos can get in transition will be a big boost to a team that has been struggling on the offensive end.
This game will probably come down to which team can make more outside shots. Young has the capability to score inside, but he's going to have trouble doing that against the Hoos front court. And we know the Hoos aren't going to score inside very much.