Tuesday night in Brooklyn, N.Y., Cam Johnson may repeat his ACC Tournament effort of last season when he scored 24 points to help Pitt beat Syracuse.
Pitt might actually beat Georgia Tech in its first-round game. The Yellow Jackets lost by 29 at Syracuse on Saturday and are only 2-4 over the past three weeks.
But no matter what happens to the Panthers in Brooklyn, N.Y., this week (short of an improbable run to the title game), nothing will be as important as coach Kevin Stallings’ recent meetings with Johnson and Ryan Luther.
There is nothing Pitt needs more going into next season than mature leaders with an adult approach to the game. Stallings believes Johnson and Luther will provide it.
“I’m very hopeful of Cam’s and Ryan’s abilities to lead this program going forward,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we’ve already begun conversations about that.
“Both of them have some of what it takes to lead this program in a good way. It will require some work from all of us because I don’t think they have been in a role of having a strong voice, but they’re going to need to have a strong voice.”
Johnson used his big game against Syracuse last year to springboard into his first season as a regular starter when he averaged 11.8 points per game and led the team with 74 successful 3-point shots (2.4 per game, eighth in the ACC).
When I asked Johnson, who will be a junior in 2017-2018, if he was ready to be a leader, he sounded insulted.
“Of course,” he said. “I’m ready to be a leader this season, next season, whenever we need it.”
That’s good because upperclassmen leadership, something that helped carry the Pitt football team last season, is lacking in basketball.
Luther, who will be the only senior with extensive experience next year, also could point the way for what will be a young team. Stallings has seven new players who have committed to enroll next school year.
Luther led the team in shooting percentage (54.5), an indication of a smart player who is willing to sacrifice stats for the team. Luther averaged only 4.3 shots per game.
“You want your best players to be leaders, you want your oldest guys to be leaders,” Stallings said. “The way (Johnson and Luther) handle their business on and off the court, they will be in a position to impact the other guys on the team in a positive way.”
Sheldon Jeter was caught looking past Georgia Tech when he saw how the ACC Tournament bracket developed for the Panthers.
The way he sees it, Pitt could be matched through the quarterfinals with three teams it can beat or has defeated — Georgia Tech, Virginia and Notre Dame.
“Georgia Tech, we let them off the hook,” he said of a 61-52 loss in Atlanta last week in which Pitt led at halftime.
(He has a point: Georgia Tech has scored 70 points only once in its past 10 ACC games. I’m not counting a 96-58 victory against Division II Tusculum that coach Josh Pastner shamelessly scheduled just to get an easy victory.)
“Notre Dame, we really let them off the hook (in a 78-77 overtime loss on New Year’s Eve),” Jeter said. “We blew two five-point leads in overtime and regulation.
“With Virginia (last Saturday), we just didn’t have people take care of business and it affected us on the court.”
Jeter was referring to Michael Young and Jamel Artis getting punished and benched for the first 10 minutes of the 67-42 loss. Pitt defeated Virginia at the Pete on Jan. 4, 88-76, in overtime.
Pitt lost to those teams for a reason, but give Jeter credit for setting lofty goals. It was poet Robert Browning who wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” (Couldn’t resist the reference.)
But Pitt hasn’t won more than two in a row since December when it won five against Buffalo, Penn State, Rice, Omaha and Marshall. It will be a bit different in Brooklyn for a team whose point total fell from 80 against Florida State and Syracuse to 63, 59, 67, 52 and 42.
No matter, Jeter said. “It’s a chance for us to show if we have some pride or not. I know one thing, I’m ready and I’m not going up there to lose, either.”