With the season just a few months away, the Pitt basketball team is in desperate need of a leader. But for second-year head coach Kevin Stallings, the options are scarce.
The loss of seniors Michael Young, Jamel Artis, Sheldon Jeter and Chris Jones leaves the team with big shoes to fill. Ryan Luther and Jonathan Milligan are the only returning scholarship players from last year’s team, and neither has ever been a consistent starter.
But for this year’s team to have any chance to compete, one of them will have to step up. By all accounts, Luther — the more experienced and talented player — will be the one Stallings leans on.
Toward the end of his first season, at a press conference, Stallings said he talked to Luther about leadership and taking on a bigger role. Now, with 10 new players as part of the 2017 recruiting class, it’s time for him to do it.
A product of nearby Hampton High School, Luther enrolled at Pitt in 2014 and has played in 76 contests in his time with the team, averaging 4.3 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. He has proven he can shoot the ball well throughout his time at Pitt, shooting 55.7 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from beyond the arc in his three seasons.
Assuming those numbers remain consistent, his production should rise — if not only for the increase in playing time he’ll get as a starter. It’s just a matter of how much it will rise and how he handles the role of team leader.
He should get some help from the recruiting class though, as Stallings recruited hard this offseason after five players — Cam Johnson, Roselle Nix, Damon Wilson, Chrisshawn Clark and Corey Manigault — all decided to transfer.
Marcus Carr, a 6-foot-2 guard, is the Panther’s top prospect, rated a four-star recruit by 247Sports and the No. 142 player in the country. In high school, he played at Montverde Academy — a national powerhouse.
“Marcus’ biggest strength is that he’s dynamic enough and you can use him on and off the ball,” Vidal Massiah, Carr’s AAU coach, told Pittsburgh Sports Now. “He can set his teammates up, he can make plays for himself, and he can score with the ball. He’s a great decision maker.”
Another player that stands out is 6-foot-10 center Peace Ilegomah, a fellow Montverde Academy graduate. Pitt has been in need of a center ever since Steven Adams left for the NBA in 2013, and the lack of inside height has hurt the team in recent years. Last year was no exception, as the Panthers big men couldn’t match up against their ACC counterparts.
Other Panther recruits who could make an impact are forwards Samson George and Shamiel Stevenson, three-star guard Parker Stewart and New Hampshire product Terrell Brown.
But while these players have talent and excelled on their previous teams, only a few of them have experience in Division I college basketball. There will definitely be an adjustment period, and they’ll need a leader to help them along the way. That’s where Luther comes into play.
This past year, the 6-foot-9 forward had his best statistical season, averaging 5.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. But just as he was beginning to grow into a solid contributor, he suffered a right foot injury in practice prior to the team’s Jan. 14 contest against Miami, forcing him to miss almost the entire remainder of the season. And even though his play was improving, it was still far away from where he needs to be this year.
In terms of what he needs to work on, his aggressiveness is the most apparent problem. Last year, Luther often passed up on open 3-pointers and lanes to the hoop, opting to defer to Young and Artis even when he had a better opportunity to score. This mindset will definitely need to change if he hopes be the team’s leader.
If it doesn’t, and Luther fails to succeed in his new role, the Panthers will have a difficult time competing in the ACC — arguably the toughest conference in college basketball. He doesn’t need to be as prolific as Young and Artis were last season, but he has to be a competent leader and create opportunities for his teammates to thrive.
One player can only do so much though, and Luther will need the new recruits to play well themselves. The odds are stacked against the group, and it will be intriguing to see how they adjust to major college basketball.
The team has just about four months to get ready for the season, when they kick things off against Navy as part of the Veterans Classic in Annapolis, Maryland, on Nov. 10.