PITTSBURGH – It might seem a bit backward, but leaving the Big East Conference to join the ACC has helped put the Pittsburgh back into the Pitt Panthers.
Not since the early 1990s, when Pitt featured Sean Miller (Blackhawk High), Darelle Porter (Perry Traditional Academy) and Jermaine Morgan (Jeannette High), have the Panthers put together recruiting classes with such a Western Pennsylvania flavor.
Starting with freshman power forward Mike Young, a Duquesne native who played prep basketball in New Jersey, Pitt began forming the foundation for its transition to ACC basketball.
The Panthers have since received commitments from Maverick Rowan, a Class of 2016 shooting guard from Lincoln Park charter school in Midland; Sheldon Jeter, a forward from Beaver Falls who played his freshman season at Vanderbilt and will have three seasons of eligibility after spending this year at Polk State College in Florida; and Ryan Luther, a senior forward at Hampton High.
Pitt also is pursuing Satchel Pierce, an Akron native who is playing a post-graduate year at The Kiski School in Saltsburg, Pa. Pierce took official visits to Pitt and Miami last month.
That all five players are at least 6-7 shows that the Panthers are going to great lengths to adjust to the ACC and making a concerted effort to make a stretch when it comes to the power forward position.
Young Fought For His Spot
Young’s career came together through a chain of apparent contradictions: To play at Pitt, he had to leave Pittsburgh. After spending his freshman year at Shady Side Academy, which produced former Stanford star Mark Sauer, Young left for Newark.
Pitt assistant coach Brandin Knight warned Young in middle school that although he possessed potential, he couldn’t rely purely on his size if he wanted to play for the Panthers someday.
“I can’t just give you a scholarship to Pitt,” Knight told Young. “You have to earn one.”
So, after playing with Penn State freshman Geno Thorpe at Shady Side, Young went to play at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark as a sophomore. That fall, his father was murdered in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, just blocks away from Pitt’s Oakland campus. He spent his junior year at Hudson Catholic before returning to St. Benedict’s.
Young developed into a 6-9, 240-pound power forward with post skills and perimeter range, a top-100 talent who became Pitt’s first hometown recruit since DeJuan Blair (Schenley High) picked the Panthers in 2007 and became a first-team All-American.
Not only was Young the centerpiece of Pitt’s 2013 recruiting class but its most vocal advocate in recruiting, helping the Panthers lure his former roommate at St. Benedict’s. When Steven Adams declared for the NBA draft and seniors-to-be Trey Zeigler and J.J. Moore transferred to TCU and Rutgers, respectively, Young helped Pitt pursue Baltimore native Jamel Artis of Notre Dame Prep and urged him to pick the Panthers.
“Mike recruited him as hard as any of us did,” Knight said.
Now, the freshmen are competing for the starting job at power forward.
Excited For ACC Action
When Pitt coach Jamie Dixon offered a scholarship to Rowan, he simply turned to his father for advice. Ron Rowan starred at Beaver Falls High, then played at Notre Dame and on St. John’s Final Four team before spending a professional career overseas.
“He said it’s the best conference in America,” Maverick Rowan said. “There’s a lot of great teams in the ACC, where you can prove yourself to be the best. We both said, ‘I’d rather play for Pitt and beat Duke and North Carolina than play for either of those teams and beat Pitt.’”
The 6-7 Rowan averaged 23.5 points per game as a freshman at Lincoln Park and is known as a long-range sharpshooter with a strong skill set and even stronger work ethic.
“He’s not done growing yet. He’s going to be a 6-9 shooting guard,” said Lincoln Park athletic director Mike Bariski, an assistant basketball coach. “He can light it up, and he’s almost always automatic on free throws. He’s probably the hardest worker you’ll ever meet, just like his dad. His willingness to get better is like no other kid I’ve ever met. He has that attitude that he wants to be the best, and he’s going to be the best. He uses his body and his basketball intelligence to create spacing. His basketball IQ is out of this world.”
Ohio State and North Carolina were showing interest, and UCLA offered a scholarship, just hours after Rowan committed to Pitt.
“It’s really close to home, where my family and friends can come see me play in the best conference in America. Pitt has a great coach, staff and facilities. The list goes on,” said Rowan, who can’t sign a national letter of intent until November 2015. “I don’t want to change, and I’m not going to change. My decision is set in stone. That’s the only downside, that I can’t play there right now.”
Jeter Finally Gets To Pitt
Jeter was the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review player of the year as a senior at Beaver Falls after scoring 21.8 points per game to lead the Tigers to the WPIAL Class AA title and an overtime loss in the state final.
The 6-8 Jeter wanted to play for Pitt, but the Panthers didn’t offer a scholarship because they opted to add depth at shooting guard instead of forward. He picked Vanderbilt over Penn State, Kansas State, South Carolina and Wisconsin, and averaged 5.5 points and 3.4 rebounds while playing 18 minutes a game as a freshman.
When he decided to transfer to be “closer to home,” Commodore coach Kevin Stallings denied both his request and an appeal to accept a scholarship from Pitt.
When he decided to transfer, Jeter said he was in contact with Cincinnati, Georgetown, Florida State, Ohio State, Purdue and VCU. While he waited, those schools filled their scholarships.
“It’s just been difficult,” Jeter said. “To leave a great institution like Vanderbilt and then go through what I went through this summer, it’s been humbling. But the end result is worth everything I went through. I felt like I fit in at Pitt. How I feel now is worth all the anger, frustration and stress that was put on me.”
So Jeter decided to take classes at Polk State College, where his cousin, Lance Jeter, played before starring at Nebraska. Another cousin, Brock VanLier, plays at Polk State and also is a prospect. Sheldon Jeter can practice but not play at Polk State, thus using a redshirt season to preserve his eligibility.
“Any leading scorer we play against, he’s going to be that player on our scout team,” said Polk State coach Matt Furjanic, a Rankin, Pa., native who was head coach at Robert Morris in the 1980s. “I might have a future pro on my scout team. That could go down in history.”
Furjanic views Jeter as a combination forward and is helping him work on his ball-handling and defending smaller guards so that he can play small forward at Pitt, which will lose three-year starter Lamar Patterson to graduation after this season.
“He’s a good outside shooter,” Furjanic said of Jeter. “He’s going to need some work on his ball-handling, which we’re working with, but I think down the road he can be a 6-8 three man. He goes to the basket with authority. He’s a great kid, a relentless hard worker.
“He’s an unbelievable kid. He’s special.”
After what Jeter calls his “summer of uncertainty,” he committed to Pitt in October and plans to sign during the early period in November. Now 233 pounds, he is looking forward to the opportunity to play for Pitt and in the ACC next season.
“It’s really exciting,” Jeter said. “To be able to leave one of the best basketball conferences in the SEC and go to what I view as the best conference with the best competition is just amazing.
“I didn’t want to go from the SEC to play in a mid-major conference. I either wanted to stay at that level or go higher. With this move, I feel like I’m going higher. And the fact that I get to study and watch (ACC) teams this year is great. It’s a win-win for me.”
Luther Will Bring Flexibility
When Luther picked Pitt over Dayton, Duquesne and George Washington, it could have been called a stretch. But that would have been a compliment, not a criticism.
“I’d say maybe I’m a three or a ‘stretch four,’ whatever they call it,” Luther said of his playing style. “I have some versatility that gives me an advantage.”
The 6-8 Luther, who averaged 21 points per game as a junior in leading Hampton to the WPIAL championship game for the second straight year, can play multiple frontcourt positions.
“Ryan is a versatile player,” Hampton coach Joe Lafko said of Luther, who averaged 21 points a game as a junior. “He has the ability to play in the interior and also has the ability to stretch a defense by shooting from the perimeter. He has to continue to work on his ball-handling skills if coaches want him to face up.”
The versatility needed to play power forward in the ACC is already reflective in Pitt’s recruiting. The Panthers signed skilled forwards in Young and Artis and have verbal commitments from Jeter and Luther.
Luther downplayed the idea that he and Jeter play the same position, given that Dixon took both in the same class. Dixon is adjusting to the ACC by recruiting players with length who are capable of handling the ball, which could allow Luther and Jeter to play together.
“Everyone always asks me that,” Ryan said. “I haven’t seen him play much, so I don’t know how similar of players we are, but if Pitt is recruiting me, then they’re not worried about it.”
As a result, Pitt has gotten longer for the ACC while keeping its recruiting efforts close to home.