Bearcat Nation knows how special it is to have Justin Pitts as the point guard of your favorite team. Now Alicante, Spain, does too.
After Pitts finished his career at Northwest Missouri State as the most decorated men’s basketball player in school history, the guard was looking for a new place to make his basketball home and CB Lucentum Alicante gave him that chance.
A member of the LEB Silver league, the team is allowed just two American players and chose Pitts as one of them.
The adjustment to professional ball in Europe wasn’t immediate for Pitts. Spain — a country whose love for basketball is unmatched outside of North America — has a very different style of basketball to the one that Pitts’ had enjoyed playing as a Bearcat.
For Northwest, it often seemed that Pitts was at his most comfortable with the shot clock under 10. The Bearcats played an extremely deliberate style with Pitts running the show — knowing that when it was time to make a play — Pitts was going to be able to create a shot.
With Alicante, it was different. They played a lot quicker pace and Pitts admits that he felt that adjustment period. In two of the first four games of the season, Pitts was held to just two points.
“It is just a completely different type of basketball and it was a big adjustment,” Pitts said. “At Northwest, we slowed it down and kind of just got what we wanted. We never pressed the fast break, picked up full court or just had one pass and shoot. Over there, they like to get the ball and go. You pass the ball, whoever gets it — if you are open, you shoot the ball.”
With his game not feeling as sharp as it was accustomed too, Pitts leaned on a familiar voice to help him adjust: Ben McCollum.
“When I first got over there, I was calling Mac or Mac was calling me two or three times a week,” Pitts said. “He knew and saw the way I was playing. He knew I was stressed out and frustrated so he’d try and call me and calm me down. … He would text me after the game and tell me what I needed to do — of course, he’d say I need to shoot more.”
McCollum had a lot to focus on with his Bearcat team going on a historic run last season, but he made sure to keep in touch with his former point guard. On an occasion when media coverage was sparse for early-season game last year, McCollum had his postgame interview from his office because he had Pitts’ game pulled up on his computer.
Pitts followed along with the Bearcats too as they made their run to a perfect season. In addition to talking to McCollum on a regular basis, he also talked with Trevor Hudgins and Joey Witthus frequently.
“I would text Joey or Trev and just congratulate them after games,” Pitts said. “It was a big year for them, because I’m sure no one saw that coming outside of the basketball team.”
The time difference made it hard to watch the Bearcats as often as he would have liked, but during the MIAA Tournament and NCAA Tournament runs, he didn’t miss a game. And he says he wasn’t surprised at all at Hudgins’ success as the team’s new floor general.
“I saw that coming from the first open gym,” Pitts said. “He wasn’t a freshman in my eyes. I think he is a D-I point guard — I’ve always said that. I knew he was going to be great and he was just a freshman so he is going to get better each year and dominate more and more each year.”
Pitts made the adjustment to the professional game and as the season went along, he just got better and better. Midway through the season, he had a stretch of 10-straight games with double-figure scoring. He had the streak snapped with a nine-point outing, but came out the next game with 24.
“The slowed down for me the rest of the season and I played pretty consistent,” Pitts said.
While Pitts’ individual success was exciting, his play also was leading to wins. Pitts’ 10-game double-figure streak was part of a 15-game winning streak for the team. And as the team’s success grew, so did Pitts’ popularity amongst the fanbase.
“It felt pretty good,” Pitts said. “When I first got there, they were always nice and they were always supportive, but obviously when you start playing well, your fanbase gets bigger and bigger. Luckily for me, I played great towards the end of the season. They just welcomed me. I want to say it was similar to Maryville, but nothing really compares to Maryville. But the fans there are great. They are crazy. They are loud. It was a fun time.”
Pitts continued the play well throughout the remainder of the season including a season-best 29 points on 7-11 shooting from three-point range in the second-to-last game of the season. Alicante ended up winning the LEB Silver league championship, which means they will be moving up to the LEB Gold league next season.
When they make that transition, they will have their floor general still at the controls. Alicante announced on June 17 that they had resigned Pitts. In addition to the opportunity to move up leagues with a familiar club, Pitts said a key to agreeing to make the move was the chance to continue playing under coach Pedro Rivero.
“He kind of reminded me a little of Coach Mac,” Pitts said. “He trusts me. He gave me the responsibility of coming right in and taking over the team. … It made it a lot easier to go back there.”
Pitts did make sure his contract had something new this season. He admits that one of the toughest things about playing overseas is not getting to be around his girlfriend Elizabeth Finn — a former Bearcat soccer player — and their daughter Penelope, who has just recently turned one year old.
A luxury to having the type of success that Pitts is had this season is that he had some extra bargaining power with his negotiations and it looks Elizabeth and Penelope will be making a couple trips across the Atlantic next year.
“They did not go with me and I think that was probably the hardest part of my adjustment,” Pitts said. “It is tough that they couldn’t come, but this year, they will definitely be coming a couple times. I made sure I had that in my contract that they could come. I can’t wait to have them over there so they can experience that.”
Before that, Pitts has a couple more months to spend stateside and he is spending that time in Iowa with Elizabeth and Penelope while he trains and prepares for his encore performance in professional basketball.