If the ridiculousness and pageantry of ACC [edit: any] media day isn’t a sign that a season is about to commence, few, if any, things are.
I got the chance to speak with the two players in Pitt’s contingent down in Charlotte — Mike Young and Sheldon Jeter — about the upcoming season, the adjustment to Kevin Stallings and how the players have tried to get Stallings acclimated to the ACC after spending the past 17 years in the SEC.
I also spoke with Stallings, but that conversation was nearly an hour long and between other responsibilities yesterday and travel today, I haven’t gotten the chance to transcribe all of it. Look for that to run here on the blog tomorrow. As for today, here are my interviews with Young and Jeter.
How comfortable are you all right now with coach Stallings and everything he has tried to implement?
“Everybody is pretty much settled in. We got a grasp of what he wants, of what his goals are and his plans are for the team, our playing style, his defensive scheme. We’ve pretty much got all of that down. It’s just about honing them and executing them how he wants us to execute them. It’s been six, seven or eight months. We’re doing really well, better than I thought at this point. We’ve still got a long way to go, but at this point, I think we’re doing pretty good.”
I wasn’t there to see it, but what went wrong in the scrimmage?
“The scrimmage wasn’t what anybody expected or what he expected. A lot of us were sluggish and slow paced, and he preaches a fast pace in practice. We go extremely fast. It works well for us.”
How much faster?
“A whole lot faster. Coach wants us to play as fast as we can under control and making good decisions. It’s nothing against coach Dixon. It’s just two different coaches, two different playing styles and two different ideas about basketball. As far as coach Stallings, he wants us to play as fast as possible while staying under control, making good decisions and taking good shots.”
How difficult was it at first with that faster tempo?
“It was rough. When he came in, he gave us some freedom. He wanted to see what we knew, what we didn’t know and how we played without any real coaching. The first couple of workouts, he said to just go out there and don’t turn the ball over, take good shots and play as fast as possible. It was different for us, just pushing the ball that fast. He allowed me to push the ball as much as possible. A guy like Sheldon will maybe take a dribble or two up the court. Jamel, he’s running point. It’s a lot of different things being thrown at us all at once, but I feel like we’ve handled it well so far.”
How has your role changed with a new coach and system?
“It’s a little different for me since I’ve been in college. Coach Dixon had an idea of how he wanted me to play, which has been very successful for me up to this point. Coach Stallings kind of wants me to play how I’ve been playing and add on to that. I’ve been working on my game since I got to college. I’ve never stopped doing that, whether coach wants me to rebound, pass the ball or score points. Regardless, I’m going to work on my game. I’ve been working on the 3 ball. Coach sees me putting in a lot of work. In practice, I’m shooting a good percentage. Up to this point, he’s letting me play out there and make decisions out there. My handle is good. Here and there, I bring the ball up, pushing it in transition. He’s just utilizing all my skills.”
How much have you all educated Stallings on the ACC?
“He asked for our insight. That was one of the things I noticed when he first got here. He asked us a lot of questions. He meets with the seniors about once a week. We go in there and have a 30-minute meeting where we talk and go back and forth on things. We’ve been doing that since he got here. He asks us a lot of questions about the ACC and what we want and how we want to play. There are various topics, but we definitely talked about ACC play and how we want to play in the ACC and what we think will get us wins and get us to the top.”
What are some of those questions?
“He asked what it’s like. He watches basketball, so he’s seen games. But he asks us what it’s like, how the refs let us play, what they might let go, how we think we should play. Questions like that.”
What have you told him?
“We told him it’s a fast-paced league. Pretty much every team likes to score the ball, play a fast pace, get up and down, and utilize their athletes. That’s pretty much what we told him about how we wanted to play. We don’t really have any big 7-footers or any big guys or anything like that. We’ve got a bunch of 6-6 to 6-9 skill guys. We told him we just want to utilize that, play fast, use our athleticism and use our skill. Once we told him that, he came up with a lot of different schemes and a great playing style.”
What has the education process about league been like with coach Stallings and the ACC?
“No game is guaranteed. I think, what, Boston College was the last-place team last season. At home, they could probably upset anybody. There’s really no guaranteed wins in this conference. Every night, you have to go out and play. But by the same token, if you do lose a game in this conference, you can’t hold on to it too long. You’ve got to move on because your next game is going to be just as tough. It was more us just telling him, which he already knew, that there are no guaranteed wins in this conference.”
What have the questions been?
“The question he asked me is what team has the best arena. From style and standpoint and how it looks, I thought Georgia Tech had the best-looking arena. It resembles like a smaller pro arena with the way it darkens the crowd. We all had different opinions on it. But that’s the one question I remember.”
As someone who has played in both, what are the differences you’ve noticed between two leagues?
“One thing I remember about the SEC was it was always had a big, bruising four and five. The four and five, they could go be walk-on football players if they wanted to. In the ACC, it’s a lot more athletic. The five men, they can still be big and bruising, but they can jump over you and finish. It combines a lot more strength and athleticism, where in the SEC, I remember it being a lot about brute strength and there always being one prolific. In the ACC, you can have three or four prolific scorers on a team.”
What was your first thought when you saw that ACC schedule for this season?
“Sink or swim. We get to show people they’re either right about us by ranking us so low or we can prove them wrong and say ‘Hey, we deserve to be in the top 25.’ We have plenty of chances against quality opponents, against some of the best teams in the country. We have a chance to show where we deserve to be. I loved it. There’s no point in playing a cookie-cutter schedule when you get to conference play. Now, the competition goes from here to up here. Now, we’re in over our heads. I like we’re jumping right in to it.”
What do you feel like you all are capable of accomplishing this season?
“I think we can finish in the top three in the conference. I feel like we have the talent and we have the experience and we have a lot of guys who are hungry to prove themselves. I feel like that’s a great combination. We have to consistently stay hungry. Even during the highs, we have to remember we’re working toward an end goal and not just one game.”
How close are you all right now to what you had at Vandy? How far in the process are you all to fully implementing the system?
“I’d say we’re there. We still have little kinks to work out, but everyone loves the way he runs practice. It’s more like a trial by fire, as far as doing a lot of live stuff, getting up and down, working on the fast-break offense. We’re pretty good. We’re never really all the way there. We’re always striving. He came in and he’s working with our strengths. He’s adjusting his offense to our strengths, and defense, too. We’re there.”
What were the most difficult aspects of the transition?
“Picking up the fast-paced offense. Normally, we have one person moving the ball up and then that would lead into, I don’t want to say a free-for-all, but pretty much like a free-for-all. Now, we have fast-break plays we run. It’s different picking up the faster offense. That was the part that was maybe a little more difficult for us.”
There’s been a lot of talk about his improvement, so I figured I’d ask — what have you noticed from Chris Jones this preseason?
“It seems like he’s completely enjoying himself out there now. He seems like he’s having fun. I’m expecting big things from him. He seems like a completely different Chris Jones. It was a Chris Jones we knew he could be, but it seems like he’s completely bought in.”
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
The weeks and months leading up to the college basketball season, or really any season, is a fertile time for boundless optimism. Everybody’s in the best shape of their lives. A given team, no matter how mediocre or plain bad it was, feels it has a chance to be something special or, at the very least, surprise a few people. There’s a rinse-repeat nature to it all.
This kind of sunny outlook is doubly true when it comes to a coaching change. Short of replacing a wildly successful coach or some sort of brooding, legendary figure, a new person in charge represents all or many of the good things the person they’re replacing didn’t. That may be true in some instances, but in these cases, ‘change’ can also be conflated with ‘progress’ and the magnitude of those changes has a tendency to get overstated.
Which brings us to Kevin Stallings. Jamie Dixon, for all he achieved in 13 years as Pitt’s coach, employed a brutally slow style of play. At the zenith of his tenure, it was a system that helped Pitt emerge as a continual presence in the top 10 of the national polls and shaped the Panthers into one of the toughest teams in the country. Once the wins didn’t come with the same regularity, it became a nuisance, a basketball eyesore for fans and a persistent question for potential new players about how their skills would be utilized in such a deliberate, inflexible scheme.
The move from Dixon to Stallings wasn’t made for that reason – technically, since Dixon voluntarily left for TCU, a move wasn’t even made – but pace of play was undoubtedly a factor in Stallings’ eventual hire. Pitt AD Scott Barnes said as much in a release announcing Stallings as the Panthers’ new coach.
“He plays a fun, up-tempo style that players love and fans will enjoy,” Barnes said in a statement.
If Barnes’ point is that Stallings runs a faster system than Dixon, he’s right. But to dub Stallings’ teams as “up-tempo” is more than a little misleading. Of Stallings’ 15 teams at Vanderbilt since KenPom began rankings, only three of them ranked among the top 100 Division I teams in tempo, none of which came in the past six seasons. Furthermore, not one of his teams in that span ever finished in the top 50 in tempo.
While preseason talk of Pitt playing up-tempo is perhaps overstated, Stallings does represent a small shot of adrenaline in the pace department, if only because his teams generally veered toward the middle of Division I in those rankings while Dixon’s were often near the bottom.
Below is a side-by-side ranking of the two coaches since the 2003-04 season.
Dixon and Stallings pace comparison (Craig Meyer/Post-Gazette)
Of all the questions surrounding Stallings’ first team, two of the most crucial will be how much faster will Pitt play and how will it handle that increased tempo. They’re questions that won’t come with firm answers for another few months, at least, but for now, we can use some historical examples to give us an idea of how it all may unfold.
We’ll start with Stallings’ own history with this. Vanderbilt’s 1998-99 team, the final one before Stallings’ arrival, averaged 69.4 possessions per game, a reasonably decent pace. In Stallings’ first season, the Commodores averaged 71.1 possessions per game, a jump of 1.7. In the following three seasons, they averaged, in order, 69.8, 70.4 and 71.1 possessions per game. Those numbers fluctuated on a year-to-year basis, but the basic point was the same – the Vanderbilt program Stallings built in those early years was faster than the one he inherited.
This happened before KenPom started measuring things like a team’s offensive efficiency, so there’s no reliable way of knowing whether the Commodores, with that faster pace, became a better offensive team.
But what about other teams over the past 10 years? How did those moving from an incredibly slow coach fare under a new leader? To find this out, I looked at every team that finished at or below 300 in the pace rankings in a given year that made or had a coaching change following the season (14 teams in total).
Here, individually, is a look at how those teams fared, listed in order of how much possessions per game increased. Before that, though, a quick explanation on each column:
Old coach tempo: Average possessions per game in last season under previous coach
New coach tempo: Average possessions per game in first season under new coach
Old o eff: Offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) in last season under previous coach
New o eff: Offensive efficiency in first season under new coach
List of historical examples (Craig Meyer/Post-Gazette)
It’s a lot to digest, but here are some of the major takeaways:
** Of the 14 teams, 10 finished with a higher number of possessions per game than they did the previous season. It’s worth noting all but one of the new coaches who had previously been a head coach had a faster system than the coach he was replacing.
** The average team in that group saw its possessions per game rise by 2.8.
** Six of the 10 teams who increased their average number of possessions per game improved their offensive efficiency in the process. Conversely, three of the four teams with a slower tempo saw their offensive efficiency dip.
** The average change in offensive efficiency was -0.7 points per 100 possessions.
** The difference in average tempo between Stallings’ previous five teams and Dixon’s was 1.8. The closest examples on the above table to that scenario are Tennessee in 2016 and Washington State in 2015. The Volunteers averaged 9.1 more possessions per game in Rick Barnes’ first year than they did in Donnie Tyndall’s lone season in Knoxville while the Cougars averaged 5.8 more possessions per game under Ernie Kent than they did in their final season under Ken Bone (not THAT Ken Bone).
I got a couple of questions about how, beyond the tempo statistics, these teams fared from a win-loss standpoint. From a fans’ standpoint, I get it. Here’s how each of those teams did in the final year of the old coaching regime and the first year of the new one.
Tempo changes and win-loss records (Craig Meyer/Post-Gazette)
** Eight of the 14 teams finished with a better record than they did the previous year. Some of that can be based on the personnel they inherited, but people were curious, so there you go.
** Six of the 10 teams who increased their pace with a new coach finished with a better record than they did the previous season. Two of the four teams whose average number of possessions decreased with the new coach finished with a better record.
So what to take from all of this and how it relates to Pitt? It’s almost certain, given Stallings’ background, that the Panthers will play faster this season, but between their taller lineup and the pace at which the team is used to playing, I don’t know if it will be a seismic change.
If anything, the numbers (and history) show Pitt, if it follows the average of the recent trend, will be a marginally speedier if slightly less efficient team.
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
I don’t know how it is for others, and whether this is just a product of my relatively young age, but Bill Raftery is a name that I associate with college basketball as much as almost anyone. He’s endlessly entertaining as a broadcaster and his catchphrases — ”Onions!”, ”With a kiss” and, of course, ”Send it in, Jerome!” -— are an unavoidable part of the sport’s lexicon and history.
Perhaps more than anything, though, Raftery’s career as a broadcaster and coach has turned him into something of a walking encyclopedia of the game, someone who can break matchups down in the detail many of us can’t replicate and place recent developments into a proper historical context. In short, he’s pretty awesome.
Raftery was an emcee at Pitt’s ”Throwback Throwdown” Saturday morning at Stage AE. The event reunited him with former Pitt great Jerome Lane, the subject of the aforementioned call, marking what he guessed to be the second time they met in person since his now-iconic dunk in 1988. While we didn’t get the opportunity to speak with Lane, who had to leave quickly to get back to his hometown of Akron to watch his son’s football game this afternoon, the media members present did get the chance to speak for about 10 minutes with Raftery, who offered his opinion and perspective on the trajectory of the Pitt program, whether it can reach the upper echelon of the sport, and how he and others view new Panthers coach Kevin Stallings.
Below are highlights from that talk, which, given Raftery’s personality, means this is most of the conversation.
On the ”Send it in, Jerome!” call:
“It’s probably the first time people knew my name. I heard it in airports. At first it was like ‘I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about’, that kind of a deal, which happened with a lot of the things I’ve said. They’d repeat them. I was on a two-way [call] once with ESPN with Jerome where I was in Charlotte and he was in Akron. It was the 25th anniversary of the dunk. He was ready to get off and he said ‘Thanks for making me famous, Mr. Raf.’ I said ‘Jerome, thanks for making me famous.’”
On Kevin Stallings’ reputation in the world of college basketball:
“If I say offense, everybody will say ‘Well, he doesn’t coach defense.’ I think he’s on a level of offense where he gets easy baskets and he’s been able to do it with restrictions, with the types of kids they get at Vanderbilt and the demands on them. I don’t mean the academic angle; it’s just getting into the school and being able to be on that level academically, not that Pitt is a second sister. He just knows how to get easy baskets. I think most of the respect for him is he’s got a great mind for offense, with back cuts and early 3s. Those are a lot of the things that have made him good to compete at that level, with Kentucky and Billy Donovan at Florida. He was hanging in there with, what, seven NCAAs. It’s uncanny, in a league that’s not near the top and in the last few years hasn’t had a lot of teams in the tournament.”
On how difficult the transition to the ACC is for a quintessential Big East team like Pitt:
“I guess the answer is the type of kids you attract and where you attract them from. It’d be great if Pittsburgh had more and better players because they would get their fair share, but I don’t know if they have that. There’s not 10 kids that could go a lot of places. That’s my guess from what I’ve been told. That hurts. Now you’ve got to find an area. Is it Philly? Is it New York? Is it Washington? That’s part of your staff makeup. [Assistant coach Kevin] Sutton is a guy that’s been around the DC area. The other kid, [assistant coach Jeremy] Ballard, has a little New York taste. That’s all the trial and error now about ‘Where do we go?’”
On the Petersen Events Center:
“The atmosphere at the game, it’s maybe the best building in the east on campus. I consider Maryland south. This is right up there with some of the best in the country. The atmosphere is pretty consistent.”
On whether Pitt can reach the top rung of college basketball:
“I’m smiling because can Seton Hall get there? Can Northwestern get there? Nobody’s going to get there. If you watch the Jordan and McDonald’s games, there are three or four schools that have the top 23 kids. But that doesn’t mean you can’t win a championship. Look at Villanova. Look at Butler getting there a few years ago. They had tough kids, though [Utah Jazz guard Gordon] Hayward was a big-time player, as it turned out. George Mason back in ’06. I don’t know if you can [get there], philosophically or realistically, but it’s all about trying to get a group together that can win it all. I don’t know if you can get that one-and-done kid. You can’t get four of them. And maybe they [Pitt] don’t want them, either.”
“You want to be good consistently and every couple of years, you might be fortunate to get to that point if you get a break or you win a close game. It’s unrealistic to say it’s going to be Kansas, Kentucky, Duke or North Carolina.”
On whether that’s true even just within the ACC:
“They’re probably going to get eight to 10 teams in every year. Rollie Massimino in 1985, he was the highest seed to ever win a championship. You always would like to be like that, but you want to be able to compete with them and that’s what I think he’ll do. He’ll get players who can score, compete and work hard. That’s it. Ben [Howland] did it, Jamie [Dixon] did it. He’s going to do it different offensively.”
On whether a sense of stagnation develops during a long coaching tenure like Jamie Dixon’s at Pitt:
“No question. I used to say Bill Foster was one of the first…he coached at Bloomsburg, Rutgers, Utah, Duke, Northwestern and South Carolina. He used to say the jokes aren’t as funny, they don’t like your hair or your tie anymore. It’s hard anymore to be a John Wooden or Mike Krzyzewski, to be at the same place. There’s always a new president, a new AD, a new faculty rep. It’s hard. You just try and do your job. Jamie’s family loved this area. That was the hard thing for him. I haven’t talked to him since he left. But I knew he loved it here.”
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
Typically, discussing the physical measurements, namely weights, of college-aged students is frowned upon in society, as it probably should be...unless you’re a sports writer, of course.
The 2016-17 season is, simultaneously, one of continuity and wholesale change for Pitt, as it gets adjusted to a new coach with a roster that, as far as key contributors are concerned, remained almost entirely intact. Those players, however, are not carbon copies of what they were heading into last season from a physical standpoint, especially with a new strength and conditioning program in place.
Amid all of the ”best shape of my life” talk are tangible changes these players have undergone from last season to this one. Some of them are slight, but still worth noting, while a handful of others have been a bit more radical. With the season still more than a month away, I took a look at Pitt’s roster this year, compared it to its roster from last year and noted the differences in height and weight in its returning scholarship players. Please keep in mind, though, that listed physical measurements are always entirely true. Otherwise, Allen Iverson would actually be 6’2”.
GROUP ONE: NOTHING (LITERALLY) HAS CHANGED
Jamel Artis: 6-7, 215 lbs.
Michael Young: 6-9, 235 lbs.
Jonathan Milligan: 6-2, 170 lbs.
GROUP TWO: THE SLIGHT ALTERATIONS
Last year: 6-5, 200 lbs.
This year: 6-5, 195 lbs.
Last year: 6-9, 220 lbs.
This year: 6-9, 225 lbs.
Last year: 6-6, 213 lbs.
This year: 6-6, 215 lbs.
Last year: 6-8, 225 lbs.
This year: 6-8, 230 lbs.
GROUP THREE: THE NOTABLE JUMP
Last year: 6-7, 200 lbs.
This year: 6-8, 210 lbs.
GROUP FOUR: THE UNKNOWN
Last year: 6-11, 300 lbs.
This year: 6-11, 300 lbs.
Nix’s story is fairly well known, as he lost 100 pounds in a two-year span and transformed himself into a Division I prospect that was able to land at a major-conference school. Visually, he looked slimmer than he was last season, but his weight, according to Pitt, is the same. If anything, it’s one of the cases where, most likely last year, his listed weight wasn’t entirely accurate.
College basketball season won’t actually begin for another five-or-so weeks, but after a long, trying and excruciating week the season has, technically speaking, started.
Pitt and other Division I programs across the country held their first practices in advance of the 2016-17 season Friday. With a bevvy of topics to discuss — from a new coach to a probable unconventional starting lineup — we got the opportunity to chat with several Panthers players and coach Kevin Stallings Friday, serving as a preview of sorts for the upcoming season.
Since you all, rightly, care much more about what they had to say than what I do, I’ve got some quotes and scattered quotes from Friday’s practice, as well as from Tuesday’s open workout. Keep in mind these are highlights, not an exhaustive transcript. You probably don’t need to read endlessly about how every player on the team is in the best shape of his life, anyway. They all say that.
“I literally haven’t watched a minute from a game last season. I don’t know how they played. I just know how we want to play. Players like it fast, fans like it fast and the only group that leaves is the coaches. We’re all too controlling anyway. We need to let loose and let the players have some fun.”
“I like that our team, most of them, are 6-4 to 6-8. We’re pretty interchangeable offensively and defensively. There’s a great deal of flexibility there. We’ll work to maximize that in any way we can. I’m not too worried about our lack of height. In my opinion, we can do things to neutralize some things other people do that have more size than us. If they’re a lot bigger than us, someone still has to guard Mike Young. That’s not going to be easy for some 6-10 guy unless he’s really, really mobile. Sometimes you can take that size thing and make it work to your advantage if you’re the smaller team or the smaller guy. We’ll work with our pace, we’ll work with the flexibility in our offense and we’ll work with our players to try and utilize that.”
** Early on, he has noticed that Pitt doesn’t have a lot of rim protectors, which is true; only one returning player, Sheldon Jeter, had a block percentage higher than 2.2 last season, nor did anyone other than Jeter average more than 0.4 blocks per game. Stallings’ final Vanderbilt team, with the help of 7-0 Damian Jones and 7-1 Luke Kornet, finished 15th in Division I in total blocks last season.
On what he has learned about the team: “I didn’t know they liked each other as much as they do. I really like that. I didn’t know about the depth. I’ve learned about that. I didn’t know how talented a couple of these guys are. Gosh, I learned a lot of things about them I didn’t know. I really enjoyed Chris Jones’ transformation this summer. About the middle of the summer, I started calling him ‘Pillsbury’ for the Pillsbury Doughboy. Chris, with [strength coach] Garry [Christopher]’s, is not the Pillsbury Doughboy anymore. He looks like a sculpted college athlete.”
On what he first noticed about Pitt as far as the speed in which they were accustomed to operating in practice: “In our first probably six or eight workouts, all I told them was ‘Do what you know, do what you’ve been taught.’ I noticed they were very big on defending the arc and the paint, just defending inside. It was a defense built from the basket out as opposed to trying to pressure guys on the outside, which is fine. That’s primarily how we’ve played. The pace was…I have to yell ‘Run, run, run’ a lot. It wasn’t uncommon for the ball to bounce three of four times after it went through the net before somebody took it out. Now, if it bounces, I’ll say something. I like it to be gotten right as it’s going through the net. We’ve just had to change to fit what I want. Whenever I say anything like that, I’m always worried that I’m going to sound like I’m saying something negative about the people that were here before me. I’m not. My way is not better; it’s just my way, it’s how we play. We’ve tried to freshen up the pace and pick it up. I’ve got guys who think they can still shoot their way on to the court. I try to tell them you’re not going to shoot your way on to the court. One day, I looked around at the four seniors and I said ‘Okay, these are the guys that will be taking all of the shots. Him, him, him and him.’ I looked at everybody else and they were all thinking ‘I’m not going to get to shoot?’ I didn’t mean that in a literal sense. The point is that, okay, Cam Johnson and Ryan Luther, they’ve played their way into the rotation and lineup with the four seniors. We’ve got some other guys who are jockeying for position. Some of the guys think the way to get there is to shoot their way in there. Honestly, that just puts them further down the line. It’s just trying to educate them on what we’re looking for, what we want and what’s best going to serve them. That’s the whole thing – what’s best going to serve them to help our whole team.”
“Our guys have been very responsive and very good in terms of their efforts and doing what we want them to get done. They’ve embraced the changes, they’ve embraced the newness of the culture and they’ve embraced me. We’re ready to get going.”
On his adjustment to Pitt, coming from Vanderbilt: “There were times at Vanderbilt that those players didn’t really need help in their life, if that makes sense. They came from homes and backgrounds where both parents were college educated and they were going to be doing things similar to what they were doing, whether I showed up in their lives or not. I might be able to impact some of these guys a little more and in a better way than I’ve been able to for a while. That’s kind of exciting for me. At the end of the day, this is about these guys and their success.”
“The buy-in was fairly immediate. They accepted me pretty quickly.”
On balancing playing at a faster speed with not fostering carelessness: “Over the course of time, one of two things happen – they either learn to trust you or they learn not to trust you. For the six months I’ve been here, I think there’s a pretty good level of trust. They know they can count on what I say and can count on what I do. I back up the things I tell them, both good and bad. From that standpoint, they trust that I am who I say I am. That’s a guy who’s here to help them succeed.”
On the biggest growing pains or points of adjustment that remain: “The biggest one I see right now is ‘How do I play really fast running up and down the court but yet play under control?’ That’s the biggest thing they have to get their minds and games and their attitudes wrapped around. Yes, we want to play fast, but we don’t want to be stupid. I always tell them there are two kinds of turnovers – there are careless turnovers and selfish turnovers. All turnovers fall into one category or another for me.”
** Of Pitt’s three newcomers, freshman point guard Justice Kithcart has stood out the most, partially because, according to Stallings, he has been the most consistent of the trio.
“The biggest thing in terms of the physical reaction is how we play at a faster pace while still playing under control. From a mental standpoint, I think they’re all bought in. They like the idea of playing fast. They like the idea of me being a guy that gives them a lot of offensive freedom. That’s just my nature.”
On granting his players more freedom on offense: “As a player, it’s easier to play if you’re not in fear of making a mistake or missing a shot. I don’t want those guys to miss a shot and think ‘Oh no, coach is going to take me out.’ I don’t want them to make a turnover and say ‘Oh no, coach is going to take me out.’ Eventually, that negatively impacts their playing psyche. I want to do it the other way, to know their coach has confidence in them. Then I think they’ll play better. If there’s a guy out there making selfish turnovers because he’s being selfish, then the next horn will be for him because I’ll take him out. Or if a guy takes a couple of bad shots that look like selfish shots to me, that’s not something I’m good with. As long as we play for each other and play for the team and have that kind of mindset, then I want them to play with as much freedom as they can.”
On having more offensive freedom with Stallings: “That’s what coach wants. This is a team that’s going to have more freedom than in past years I’ve been here. I like that a lot because I don’t really think I could show my talents [previously]. Teams in this offense, a lot of them run the point guard and push the ball up the floor. That’s a good thing because I can make the plays and make scouts see me as versatile. I don’t think I had that in the past few years here and I’m happy coach Stallings is here.”
“Guys are more comfortable out there. With Jamie Dixon, I think guys were a little scared to make a play. Coach Stallings put the trust in these guys that you can go out there and make a play and have more freedom. But don’t get too overcome and comfortable with the freedom. Play within the system and make a play.”
“We had a rotation of nine guys last year I don’t think we should have had. Guys would come in for two minutes and get pulled out. That’s not how I want to play. You can’t get comfortable like that. We don’t have that much depth right now, but with coach Stallings, there’s freedom.”
On the move to point guard: “Last year, I couldn’t bring the ball up the court like I wanted to.”
** I asked Jamel if he had any experience playing point guard prior to arriving at Pitt; he had, in prep school.
On what Sheldon Jeter told Pitt players about Stallings after the hire was made: “Sheldon talked about him. He said he lets guys have that freedom and lets guys play their game and isn’t too hard on them when they make a play or miss a shot. I know I can trust him. I feel that trust right now.”
** Artis added Pitt will be more of a fast-break-oriented team this season than it has been previously.
On the adjustment to a new coach: “He [Jamie Dixon] is a good coach. He won a lot of games. But sometimes you have to let guys play to their skills and show their skills and have a little more freedom. That makes a guy more confident, not being yelled at all the time. Not saying coach Stallings doesn’t yell, but he puts it in a different way.”
On if he has ever played in a starting lineup that will potentially (edit: probably) have as much size/length as Pitt’s this season: “No, never. But it’s something different.”
On Stallings’ offense: “His offense has a lot of flow to it. So when something happens, something else happens right away.”
** Jones said he, in addition to Artis, will be handling the ball some this season, though Artis will primarily be responsible for doing so.
On Pitt’s lineup: “We can create mismatches at the one and two and, honestly, offensively, we’ll still have mismatches and the five and four. Mike’s a really mobile guy and so is Sheldon. If we can get up and down and score the ball like we really want to, we’ll have a bunch of mismatches.”
On the biggest difference between where Pitt is now and where it was this time last season: “We’re in a lot better shape because of getting up and down. We do a lot more running in practice than we normally would. I don’t mean running like sprints. I just mean transition wise, we get up and down a lot. Guys are slimmer, guys are faster.”
On why nobody left, even with the coaching change: “He gives off a sense of trust. That’s something he talked to us about the first day, about being honest and things like that. We all liked what he had to say.”
On what Pitt is capable of this season: “We’re capable of something great. Getting an ACC championship is what I think we’re capable of.”
On if he harbors any negative feelings against Stallings: ”No. None to speak of.”
On how he would characterize Stallings’ coaching style: “On the court, I would call it structured freedom. We’re put in place and he just says ‘Go’ and we go make plays. Off the court, everyone’s accountable. We’re held to like a professional standard now. You’ve got to be on time for everything, you’ve got to go to all your classes, you’ve got to turn in all of your work. The culture is kind of rapidly changing to how it was at Vanderbilt. That’s what I was used to when I got up here. He’s very demanding off the court. He wants you to be a great ambassador for our program.”
** Jeter said Pitt is ”about 85 percent” of the way to completely emulating how Vanderbilt looked, based on the year he spent there as a freshman.
On the adjustment to a new coach for much of his team: “It’s like any time you have a new parent. There’s going to be resistance at some point. But I think, as a team, we met about it and we’re fully trusting him. We fully trust what he’s saying.”
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG