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Louisville next up for Pitt team still searching for consistency

| Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, 7:06 p.m.
Syracuse's Tyus Battle (right) and Pitt's Sheldon Jeter battle for a rebound in the second half Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, in Syracuse, N.Y. Syracuse won 77-66.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Jamel Artis drives past Virginia's Marial Shayok in the second half Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017 at the Petersen Events Center.

With 16 games gone and at least 16 left — including a visit to Louisville on Wednesday night — Pitt looks like a team that could make an impact in the ACC.

But can anyone be sure after the Panthers (12-4, 1-2) followed a victory against No. 19 Virginia with a 20.7 percent shooting effort in the first half against unranked Syracuse?

Pitt lost that game 77-66, snapping a five-game winning streak that former coach Jamie Dixon had built against the Orange.

What can't be argued is that Pitt will test first-year coach Kevin Stallings' strategic skills. There's little about the makeup of Pitt's lineup that can be termed traditional.

“We don't have a traditional center. We don't have a traditional point guard,” Stallings said. “We have five guys who can, for the most part, dribble, pass and shoot.”

At least Pitt is keeping its fans interested. Three overtime games at home have inched Pitt closer to regaining the special atmosphere at Petersen Events Center.

But the Panthers are allowing an average of 75.9 points (next-to-last in the ACC and 263rd of 347 FBS teams).

“Particularly on the defensive end, we need to do better,” Stallings said.

A visit to the Louisville's KFC Yum! Center, where Pitt never has won in five tries, will be a difficult test for the defense, but not one that looks impossible to solve.

Louisville (13-3, 1-2) averages 75.1 points per game, six fewer than Pitt, and coach Rick Pitino said Tuesday that injuries have taken a toll on his team.

“We used walk-ons to practice,” he said.

Three Louisville players have suffered concussions this season, the latest being sophomore Deng Adel, who couldn't practice Monday but is recovering and is expected to play against Pitt, Pitino said.

The problem for Pitt will be breaking Louisville's press that quickly can convert turnovers into points.

Pitino said the makeup of Pitt's lineup — with five starters who can handle the ball — may lessen the effect of his press.

“They'll have five guys help against the press,” he said. “I don't think the press will be a major factor in this game, but I hope it is a factor.”

Louisville is 2-3 against ranked teams, including a 66-63 loss to undefeated No. 1 Baylor and a 73-70 victory against No. 6 Kentucky.

“The only poor game we played was Virginia (a 61-53 loss),” he said.

Meanwhile, Pitt must try to find other ways to challenge its opponents without putting continual pressure on leading scorers Michael Young and Jamel Artis.

Young (22.3 points per game) and Artis (21.5) are first and second in the ACC in scoring, with Artis leading the conference and 19th in the nation in 3-point percentage (45.7, 42 of 92). In three ACC games, Artis has hit 15 of 24 3s.

Pitino called them “one of the more dynamic tandems in college basketball.”

Actually, Pitt's starting lineup doesn't get much of a breather. Artis averages 35.2 minutes per game, Young 32.7, Cam Johnson 32.9 and Chris Jones 31.4. Only Louisville's leading scorer Donovan Mitchell averages as many as 30.

But it's difficult for Stallings not to look toward Young and Artis for game-changing plays.

Young, 6-foot-9 and the closest player on Pitt's roster to a center, has been a scoring force from a variety of areas, including 42.9 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

Many times, Artis needs to be the recipient of the pass, not the one making it.

“Jamel is our best passer, but there are times when it's best to post Jamel up,” Stallings said of his 6-6 point guard.

Stallings knew when he was hired in March that survival in the ACC wouldn't be easy.

“It's the ultimate in an 18-game grind,” he said. “We are going to have to fight every night to scratch and claw to get wins. That's what makes it a great league.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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