Pitt embraces roster flexibility, preps to switch heavily on defense


For four straight seasons, James Robinson was a pillar at the point guard position for the Pittsburgh Panthers. He played 136 career games and made 135 starts, leaving a void in Pitt’s roster.

This has been complicated by Pitt’s lack of a natural replacement. First-year coach Kevin Stallings will use Jamel Artis as his nominal point guard. It may seem unusual for a 6-7, 220-pound guy to play the 1, but think about it this way: Artis was second on Pitt last season in assists (3.0 per game) and assist rate — 19.9 percent, according to Ken Pomeroy.

It may seem nontraditional, but this is where basketball is headed; positions will matter less and less in the future.

Pitt will play heavy minutes with a lineup that consists of Artis, Michael Young (another bulky playmaker), Sheldon Jeter, Chris Jones and Cameron Johnson. All five of those guys are separated in height by just a few inches, which gives them a great deal of flexibility, especially on the defensive end.

Basketball has become a game of spread pick-and-rolls on offense. Teams want to space the floor with shooters and run a high ball screen for someone in the middle of the court. This is a simple set, but it’s also really tough to guard if the offense possesses shooters and a quality distributor. One of the best ways for a defense to counter this is for them to switch on ball screens. That’s challenging to do, though.

The Panthers will trot out a starting lineup that has five guys similar in size, which is ideal for creating a positionless defense.

Last season, Pitt finished 54th in the nation in defensive efficiency — 97.2 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom. In conference play, though, that number ballooned to 106.5 points per 100 possessions. Could a shift to a more switchy defense be what Pitt needs to combat the high-powered offenses of the ACC? Ask any playmaker worth a dime and they’ll tell you that they love when a big, slow guy switches onto them — that’s when they cook. However, everyone in this Pitt lineup has the ability to hang with a perimeter foe for at least a few dribbles, which can make things far more difficult for speedy ball-handlers.

While Stallings was at Vanderbilt, the Commodores were at times great defensively. In 2011-12 and 2015-16, Vandy ranked inside the top 35 in defensive efficiency; last season, the team allowed just 93.8 points per 100 possessions.

Young and Artis will form the nucleus of potent offense, and if the Panthers can become a switch-friendly amoeba on the defensive end, then they’ll be back in the NCAA tournament for the 14th time in the last 16 seasons.