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Who will jump in for Clark?

Pitt men's basketball head coach Kevin Stallings was considering sophomore guard Crisshawn Clark for the core group this season. (TNS)

Pitt men's basketball head coach Kevin Stallings was considering sophomore guard Crisshawn Clark for the core group this season. (TNS)



Pitt men's basketball head coach Kevin Stallings was considering sophomore guard Crisshawn Clark for the core group this season. (TNS)

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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The regular season hasn’t even started yet, and the Pitt men’s basketball team is already dealing with adversity.

When sophomore guard Crisshawn Clark suffered a season-ending knee injury Monday –– just four days before the Panthers’ season officially gets underway –– it forced new head coach Kevin Stallings to completely rethink the way his rotation is structured.

It will also force Pitt’s other perimeter players –– namely Justice Kithcart, Damon Wilson and Jonathan Milligan –– to step up and fill the void.

“It limits the options,” Stallings said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “Crisshawn had a very good chance of being a guy that was in the nine.”

That “nine” Stallings speaks of is the core group of nine players –– five starters and four reserves -– that Stallings prefers to roll with as a coach. It doesn’t mean players outside the nine won’t see the floor, but the core players are expected to see the bulk of the playing time.

Clark, a sophomore guard who transferred to Pitt from Canada College before the start of the school year, wasn’t expected to earn a starting role in Stallings’ offense –– at least not this year. But he was acclimating himself well in the new coach’s system, and had been considered for a role off the bench in 2016-17.

Now, with the 6-foot-4, 210-pound guard unavailable for the 2016-17 season, Stallings must look elsewhere to fill the gap on the wing left by Clark’s absence.

“I would say Justice [Kithcart] has probably worked his way to where he’s in [the nine],” Stallings said. “I would say that now this puts the spotlight more on Damon Wilson and Jonathan Milligan in terms of who that other perimeter player will be.”

Kithcart, one of just two true freshmen on the team, is a quick, dynamic point guard who has shown Stallings enough in preseason practices and scrimmages for the new coach to trust him as a backup point guard.

Originally viewed as Pitt’s point guard of the future, Kithcart is slated for a key role right from the start and might even become a starter before the season is over.

With Stallings appointing Kithcart and junior forward Ryan Luther as two of the Panthers’ four reserve players in Pitt’s nine-man rotation, that leaves two spots up for grabs. One of them is almost certainly designated for a big man like Rozelle Nix or Corey Manigault, leaving Wilson and Milligan to vie for the final backcourt spot.

Wilson is a 6-foot-5, 195-pound sophomore with the ability to play either point guard or shooting guard. He has more experience with the Panthers than Milligan, having played in 30 games last year while averaging more than 10 minutes per game.

Milligan is a 6-foot-2, 170-pound redshirt junior with plenty of college experience, just not at the Division I level. He played two seasons at Kilgore College, earning first-team all-region honors before transferring to Pitt after the 2014-15 season. He played in four of the team’s first five games last year before opting to redshirt because of family issues.

Both players can provide plenty of speed and athleticism off the bench, but it will be tough for Stallings to replace Clark’s physicality in the backcourt. Without even playing in his first official game, Clark is leaving a huge hole in the Panthers’ lineup.

“It’s hard to see somebody that you’ve seen rehab so hard to get back to this point … to see him go down yesterday, it hurt. You really feel for that,” Pitt sophomore guard Cameron Johnson said on Tuesday. “I feel like it’s just something that we need to come closer as a team … make sure he’s OK, keep him involved with the team. And then everybody else has to pick up their game.”

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Who will jump in for Clark?