Kevin Stallings’ debut season as the Pitt men’s basketball head coach almost got off to a disastrous start, but the Panthers have managed to scrape their way to a 3-1 record to start a season that very easily could be 1-3.
Pitt will return home to host the Yale Bulldogs at the Petersen Events Center Tuesday night, four days after the most significant win of Stallings’ short tenure. The Panthers came back from a 15-point second-half deficit against Marquette University to win, 78-75, in the third-place game of the 2016 2K Classic benefiting Wounded Warrior Project at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Speaking of the win over Marquette as well as the Panthers’ 76-67 loss to Southern Methodist University in the 2K Classic semifinals, Stallings said the trip to New York provided a valuable experience.
“Those games were good for me because I probably learned more about our team in two days than I’ve been able to learn, honestly, in six or seven months,” Stallings said.
The Panthers’ two senior leaders, Michael Young and Jamel Artis, have performed up to and maybe even beyond expectations in the team’s first four games — especially the last two.
Young, a 6-foot-9 forward and preseason second-team All-ACC selection, has received each of the first two ACC Player of the Week honors in the 2016-2017 season. He put up 26 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in Pitt’s season-opening 93-90 win over Eastern Michigan in double overtime, but he also committed seven turnovers in the game.
Since then, Young has taken much better care of the ball, committing only five turnovers in three games. The Duquesne, Pennsylvania, native put up a career-high 30 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in the win over Marquette.
Meanwhile, Artis assumed the role of starting point guard and promptly tallied 27 points, nine rebounds and three assists without a turnover in the season opener. He had four turnovers in each of the next two games but managed the game perfectly against Marquette with 21 points, seven rebounds, three assists and again, no turnovers.
Artis, a 6-foot-7 native of Baltimore, hasn’t put up the high number of assists traditional point guards are known for. But scoring 20-plus points without giving the ball away in two out of four games is still a promising sign for the season.
“Jamel and Mike obviously proved to us that we can count on them offensively,” Stallings said. “They were very, very good in both games.”
Artis and Young excelled in both games on the big stage at Madison Square Garden, but it wasn’t enough to avoid suffering the team’s first loss in the semifinals against SMU. The
Panthers needed more production from the rest of the offense to beat Marquette — specifically from senior guard Chris Jones, who went scoreless on five attempts against SMU.
“When we get a typical offensive game from [Artis and Young], if we can get a third guy to score, then it makes a big difference for our team,” Stallings said. “And Chris Jones ended up being the guy in the Marquette game.”
Jones contributed 13 points on five-of-seven shooting along with four rebounds, four assists and two steals in the win over Marquette. He said his mindset was the key to his improved performance after Stallings criticized him and the rest of the players for standing around and watching Artis and Young too much against SMU.
“Just being more aggressive, trying to get in the paint and make plays,” Jones said Monday about what worked for him against Marquette. “I know that’s what Coach really wants me to do, is get in the lane and make plays for myself and try to make plays for others.”
Coming home to face a Yale team playing without its leading scorer from last year, Makai Mason, Jones knows the Bulldogs are still a dangerous bunch. They finished 23-7 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year and already have a road win over Washington to their credit this season.
“Yale is good though, still. Obviously, they’re without [Mason], who’s a great player,” Jones said. “I don’t think we’re looking at it like a down game. We’re just trying to play with our backs against the wall like we did in the second half of that Marquette game.”