The Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am wrapped up last Wednesday, with Shale Land Services (and Summer League GOAT Rene Castro) defeating the Duca Nepa Road Warriors in a highly-entertaining 133-24 game.
But let’s be honest – outside of an extremely select few (they’re out there somewhere), the results of these games between cobbled-together teams are immaterial. You, very understandably, care about how the players at your favorite college performed.
So what exactly did we learn from the two weeks of games? It varies. For players like Mike Young and Jamel Artis, it wasn’t a ton, mostly because these are established players with little to prove in that kind of a laid-back setting. For others, like Justice Kithcart and Damon Wilson, it was a valuable glimpse at, respectively, a newcomer and a player still early in the developmental process.
With the Pro-Am over and the start of the season still several months away, I figured now would be a good opportunity to evaluate what we saw from various Pitt players in that brief viewing window. As always, there’s something important to note with these games, namely that overarching conclusions and concrete expectations shouldn’t come from them. There’s little to no defense played and the free-flowing structure of the games is a stark contrast to the more regimented schemes that await them once the season begins. How someone performs in one has no bearing and limited insight on how that will translate to actual games.
With that in mind, let’s get started. I didn’t include Young, Artis or Sheldon Jeter in these write-ups because they’re largely the same players you have watched the past several seasons. Without anything revelatory emerging from the Pro-Am, I’ll trust that kind of body of work over what we saw this month.
And, for reference, here’s a composite box score from the event.
Stats from the PBC Pro-Am (Craig Meyer/Post-Gazette)
Justice Kithcart – Kithcart enters his freshman season with the kind of expectations usually reserved for top-50 prospects, but given Pitt’s roster situation, it’s not difficult to see why he’s such a person of interest. The Panthers are extremely thin or just flat-out inexperienced at point guard, something that has led to open discussion of Artis manning the position, at least to start the season. At 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, Kitchart is an extremely fast player, both over a distance and, especially, with his first step, the latter of which he used to repeatedly blow by defenders. As you might expect from someone who grew up playing the position, he has an excellent handle and uses it advantageously, routinely turning on a dime and displaying a shiftiness that hasn’t been seen from a prominent Pitt point guard in a bit. There are, of course, drawbacks and I would advise Pitt fans to keep these in mind when mentally envisioning his freshman-year conquests. He was statistically proficient, averaging 27 points per game, but he too often used his impressive skill set to be a high-volume but extremely inefficient offensive player. Kithcart made just 40.8 percent of his shots and 20.8 percent of his 3s, a combination of taking bad shots and simply missing open looks. His two assists per game aren’t exactly encouraging, either, but that could be partially attributed to the nature of the games.
Cam Johnson – Perhaps the biggest revelation of the tournament, Johnson looks primed for a breakout role this season after averaging just 11.7 minutes per game last season. Johnson, at times, looked like an ideal iteration of himself, i.e. an effective two-way player that’s the size of some college power forwards but has the skills of a guard. Most likely, he’ll be a shooting guard in Kevin Stallings’ system, though a player with his kind of versatility won’t be pigeonholed that narrowly. He made exactly half of his 44 3-point attempts during the tournament and looked to be a capable driver as well, one who was quick enough to get by shorter, faster defenders and big enough to wade through the trees in the low post and get his own shot. Johnson cooled down a bit after some outrageously hot showings in the second and third games, but he was an appropriate choice for co-MVP of the Pro-Am. Though it’s obviously debatable, he was Pitt’s best player in the event.
Damon Wilson – Wilson has a year of games for us to look back on, but given those spot appearances (10.8 minutes per game in 2015-16), he’s still something of an unknown. I didn’t get the chance to watch Wilson a ton last year, but I’m familiar with the problems he experienced, from his carelessness with the ball at times to his woeful shooting. From what I saw in the Pro-Am, I was very impressed by him, whether he competes at point guard or ventures into more of a two-guard role. At the very worst, the foundation for a potentially great point guard is there. He’s quick and, in the games I saw, an able passer who regularly put his teammates in good scoring opportunities. The biggest question, of course, is whether he can improve as a shooter. Granted, it was just the Pro-Am, but his stroke looked much better and he has developed more of an arc on his jumper, something that helped him make seven of his 17 3s (41.2 percent). Assistant coach Tom Richardson is known, among other skills, as a shooting specialist and he said he has worked with Wilson more than any other player on the team. While we won’t know the true impact of that instruction for months, Wilson is at the very least off to a promising start.
Ryan Luther – It was interesting watching Luther in a summer league setting, especially since he’s so often deployed as a defensive and rebounding reinforcement off the bench in actual games. Those skills are still apparent in this kind of a format, but he becomes a more proficient and dazzling offensive player, one that averaged 21.5 points per game. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, he played in just a couple of games, taking fewer shots (32) in the Pro-Am than all but one Pitt player. What I saw was good, but there simply wasn’t enough to draw any major observations.
Jonathan Milligan – I wish I had gotten to see more of Milligan than I did, but from what I did catch, he and Kithcart seem like fairly similar versions of each other, though one (Milligan) is clearly more polished. He’s fast, smaller guard who isn’t much of an outside shooter – he missed 14 of his 18 3s (22.2 percent) – but who can cut through the lane and find open teammates, as evidenced by his excellent 3.5:1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio. Because of his age and his perceived developmental ceiling, Kithcart is certainly a more tantalizing prospect, but Milligan did nothing to show he can’t compete for minutes at point guard.
Rozelle Nix – I probably got more questions about Nix from people than any other Pitt player. Being a 6-foot-11, 300-pound center will generally do that, especially for someone who has yet to play a game for a team lacking a true rim protector. There’s a lot of promise in Nix. He’s got a decent, albeit awkward-looking, outside jumper for someone his height and he has a nice touch around the basket. For someone who has notably lost a lot of weight, it didn’t look like he had too much trouble getting up and down the court, at least in the spurts he was out there. He did, however, look clumsy at times with the ball and his footwork was a bit clunky, both of which were apparent when he wasn’t able to physically overpower his defender. I wouldn’t envision a huge role for Nix next season -- especially with firmly entrenched forwards like Young, Jeter, Artis and Luther on the roster – but if he could play a solid, productive six or seven minutes a game for Pitt in ACC play, that’d be a pretty nice boost.
Corey Manigault – Pitt’s other freshman who participated in the event took the fewest shots of any Panthers player (26) and, like Luther, didn’t play in every game he could have. He was a little slow on defense – again, not unusual for that event – but he seemed to have better vision of the court/open teammates than many young bigs typically do. Manigault also looked winded fairly quickly in his appearances, which isn’t totally damning since the games are played at a faster pace, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. As far as freshmen are concerned, he looks to be further behind on the developmental scale than Kithcart, albeit at different positions, but on a team with so many experienced frontcourt players, he will, at worst, get a valuable year to get acclimated to college basketball without being relied on too much to play a bigger role than he may be ready for.
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
If you missed it yesterday, I had a story on Kevin Stallings and his first 100 days as Pitt’s coach. When beginning a new job, especially one with that kind of a leadership role, the first 100 days can be critical and I wanted to examine how those went for Stallings. He has done a nice job in that time, keeping Pitt’s roster intact — largely thanks to Sheldon Jeter — hiring a good group of assistant coaches and not losing any of the Panthers’ 2016 recruits. More than anything, though, I wanted to examine how a coach whose hire was pretty universally panned goes about changing the perception of himself, if he even tries to at all.
Part of my reporting for that story involved a 30-minute sitdown with Kevin where we talked about his work in those first three-plus months and how he has transitioned to a new venture at this point in his career. Below is a transcript of that conversation. If you’ve got any questions or anything, as always, feel free to respond in the comments, hit me up on Twitter (@CraigMeyerPG) or shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
What was the first thing you wanted to do or accomplish when you took over?
“My first thing was to integrate myself with the players and the recruits. I felt like my first job was to get with the guys on the team and not have anyone leave and get with the recruits and make sure they showed up. I felt like that was job one. I was 100 percent on that. I was able to get that done in pretty short order. That didn’t take as long as I thought it might. I basically had a list of things that I wanted to accomplish in essentially the first three months or first 100 days I was here. That’s still a work in progress, but a lot of the things I thought were really important we’ve been able to accomplish. There will be some we probably won’t get done in the first 100 days, but the first thing I wanted to do was get with the guys on the team, try to make them comfortable with the idea of a new coach coming in and get with the recruits and make sure they understood they were still wanted and welcome here.”
What was tenor like in the room when you first met with the players?
“It was understandably one of apprehension, not knowing and not sure. One thing that really helped me was Sheldon [Jeter] having played for me for a year. He was able to let the guys know ‘Hey, here’s what he’s about, you’ll like playing for him.’ It was nice for me because he was able to say ‘I liked playing for him’. That, I thought, was a big help. He was and still is able to communicate some off-court expectations to them and how I might be similar and how I might be different from what they’ve been used to. That’s been helpful. I think, honestly, the buy-in of all the seniors -- not only Sheldon, but Mike [Young], Chris [Jones] and Jamel [Artis] – has been critical to the transition for me. Those guys have really bought into me and my staff and our culture. I think that has set the tone for everyone else in the program. They were, like every team is when a new coach is coming in, unsure and tentative. We were able to knock down some walls and apprehensions very, very quickly. That was really pleasing for me.”
How surprised are you that everyone stayed?
“What it spoke to was the quality of the experience they were having here. It spoke to the connectedness they felt with each other, the connection the players felt amongst themselves. Was I surprised? I don’t want to say I was surprised. I was pleased we were able to keep everyone. I didn’t know if we would lose someone or not. I really took the approach that if you didn’t want to be here, we’ll be supportive and we’ll help you go. We want you here and we want you to stay. I did that with the current players and the incoming recruits. We want you to come and we want you to be here. If you don’t want to, we’ll help you go elsewhere. We’re not going to stand in your way. Fortunately for me, they all wanted to be here. When they listened to what we were talking about and how they felt things were going to be, they all decided they wanted to be here.”
For a new coach, how important are those first 100 days?
“It’s critical. You’ve got to get your staff in place, which is always a very difficult thing. It’s very difficult to assemble an entire staff and get people put together like that. That may be the most important decision or decisions you’ll make. That took a little bit of time. Setting the standards and expectations for off the court, whether it be classroom performance, off-the-court behavior and social-type things. Obviously, and ultimately, the expectations of what’s happening on the court. Culture is a term that I think gets thrown around pretty loosely these days, but I think the program culture, next to my staff, was the preeminent thought for me going into those first few weeks.”
How have you approached trying to establish relationships with players so quickly?
“The first thing I did was met with them collectively and then met with them individually. Beyond that, it has been a continuation of encounters both in a group setting and a one-on-one setting. It might not be up here in my office. It might be someone comes into shoot and I’ll go down on the court and have a 20-minute conversation with them. It’s communicating to them what my expectations are and what I see in them and how I see they can bring value. I think, more than anything, my approach, and they know this, is to be blunt, forthcoming, transparent and honest. I think they’ve appreciated my transparency. They know I feel, they know what I think, positive and negative. They trust what I think because I tell them both good and bad. I try to praise them more than I criticize them. I told them early on I can either be the encourager or the enforcer. Every day I come to work, all I desire to be is the encourager. I’ll only be the enforcer when you put me in a position where I have to be the enforcer. I think, after some time, they see what I’m saying and believe what I’m saying. I’ve really challenged our seniors to step up their leadership game. We’ve got guys who have been really good in terms of leading themselves, playing within themselves and working on their game themselves. But we need a little more inclusion. We need a little bit more ‘we’. I don’t think we have a lot of ‘I’. But we don’t have enough ‘we’ yet. By that, I mean someone may say ‘I’m going to go to the gym and work on my game’. Okay, that’s great. Why don’t you bring somebody with you? Why don’t you get a teammate and push your teammate and get your teammate here with you so now we’re working on our game? We are getting better instead of just me. Honestly, I asked them when I first got here…I told them here are two things that are non-negotiable – we’re going to play hard and we’re going to communicate. We’ve hit those things every time we’re together. We talk about them every time and emphasize them every time. I really like their chemistry. It’s interesting because they really like each other. Yet, and I’ve told them this over and over again, I know in reality you guys really like each other, but that’s got to show up on the floor. We’ve got to have that communication and have those good feelings out on the court to where we don’t become self-indulged. That’s what I mean by being inclusive and getting out of the ‘me’ territory and into the ‘we’ territory.”
You were talking about your staff. When coaches take on these new endeavors, do you have a short list of guys who you want with you who you target?
“As I knew this was becoming a possibility, I had to make a list of guys that were potential candidates for me. Interestingly, things worked out as well as they could have. There was a lot of interest and things worked out great for the guys I was able to bring with me and for the guys I was able to hire from elsewhere. We kind of did all three things. We kept a guy, we brought some guys and we hired some guys. I couldn’t – and I mean this, this isn’t just rhetoric – be more pleased and happier with the team of guys I’ve been able to assemble here. I’m really, really high on my staff. Really high.”
When you pick these guys, do you try to get guys who address certain blind spots you may have as a head coach?
“Absolutely. I want guys that are smarter than me. That’s probably not all that difficult, honestly, but I want guys who are team guys, not me guys. The same thing goes for my staff as it does for my team. I want team-oriented people, guys that are honest and hard-working. I really value intelligence, guys who are smart. Smart people solve problems. That’s what I want. I want guys who can solve problems, whether it’s recruiting problems or problems on the team or problems in any way. I want guys who can solve problems and help kids grow. That’s our job, is to help these guys get better, not only on the court, but off the court. It’s very difficult for me to hire someone I don’t know. The only guy I hired that I didn’t know was Jason Richards, who was on the staff and had been here with Jamie and he’s been a phenomenal addition. That was my approach. As you put it together, it’s like a team. You figure out what roles guys are going to play and what you think they’ll play and you add based on strengths and weaknesses and how they’re going to come together and be the best as a group that you can make them, just like a team. It is a team. I knew Tom would be with me and I knew Dan Cage would come with me in the ops role. It was a matter of getting a couple of other guys who were going to be in a recruiting capacity who had experience, toughness and knowledge of the ACC footprint. That was a big thing. I felt like I was able to do that well.”
What has the feedback and reception from fans and alumni been like since you took over?
“Overall, the reception has been phenomenal. The tone and the tenor of the press conference notwithstanding, the reception from recruits, coaches, families, our fan base, the people in the city… I’ve been out there a lot and I’ve gotten nothing but really, really positive comments. I’ve experienced the friendliness of the city of Pittsburgh and it has really been an awesome thing. I’ve been told, and I’m sure I’ll have a greater appreciation for it a year from now than I do after two or three months, but it’s there. It’s real. It’s not imagined. It’s not something people just talk about. It’s real. That part has been really enjoyable. It’s nice to encounter so many really, truly nice people. Some of them don’t even know what you do or who you are. The nature here is nice and friendly. I’m very excited about that.”
There was a lot of criticism of the hire. How aware of that were you and how much did it bother or hurt you?
“Honestly, until the press conference, I wasn’t. I’ll be judged on the job I do. I’m not worried about anything other than doing the best job for these players that I can do. It’s about these players. It’s not about me. If people are critical of me, that’s okay. At least they’re not being critical of them. I would rather people criticize me than criticize the players. Not that that was an instance where they would criticize the players, but I’m wired in such a way…it’s like recruiting. People will ask you how recruiting went. I don’t know. I’ll tell you in a couple of years. The job I do will speak a lot louder than the words I say. It’s like I tell the players – people won’t always believe what you say, but they’ll believe what you do. That’s kind of my modus operandi.”
When you’re new somewhere, do you take extra steps to try to ingratiate yourself to the community? Like if you’re going out to a restaurant, do you maybe tip 25 percent instead of 15 or 20? Small things like that?
“No, not really. I’m not good at being fake. I’m only good at being real. As stiff or old-fashioned as it may sound, I’ll tip based on the service. If I get good service, I’ll give a good tip. Honestly, I enjoy getting good service and I enjoy giving a good tip.”
That’s just one example.
“I hear what you’re saying. I’ve done a few things that are probably a little bit out of my nature. I came into the airport the other day and there was a gentleman who had a Pitt cap on and a Pitt shirt on. I just had some regular clothes on, nothing that said Pitt on it. I just walked over and said ‘Hey, I’m Kevin Stallings. I’m the new basketball coach at Pitt. I just saw your attire and I wanted to say hello’. Then he showed me he had a Pitt watch on, as well. That’s a little bit forward for me. I don’t just run up to people who I’ve never seen before and have never seen me before and do such things. I’m a little more private and a little more shy than that. I think I only did that because I want all Pitt fans who want to know me meet me. If that’s a way to promote our program, then that’s my job is to promote our program. Stuff like that. I’ve enjoyed being out at Penguins games and Pirates games and can’t wait to see the Steelers play. I’m excited for that. But I’m also excited to see our football team play. I’m just trying to be who I am and be real because that’s who I am. But, at the same time, with an eye on reaching out to people I know care about the University of Pittsburgh.”
You were given a short list of people, I think boosters, to reach out to. What were those initial conversations like?
“I actually made the offer to Scott and to the other people that if there are people you want me to reach out to…I got a couple of lists, actually. One turned into two, which turned into three. I did better with the first and second lists than I did the third list. I say list. It was three or four, maybe five, people. The calls were easy and people were really nice and receptive and helpful. I wouldn’t want to get into specifics of any particular conversation, but generally speaking, they’re obviously very supportive of the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh basketball.”
What has been the most difficult thing about the past few months?
“Leaving a place that was home for the past 17 years. It’s been a little more emotional than I thought it would be. I’m a little bit emotional anyway. My kids laugh at me because, as they say, I don’t cry at the movies, I cry at the previews they show before the movie starts. I think the emotional part of being at a place for a long time like that and then sort of uprooting. I underestimated…I never really had a difficult time of leaving. You’re always sad about leaving friends behind, but this one has been a little bit different because 17 years is quite a long time.”
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
After a one-year absence, the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am is back and, now, we have a full list of participants and teams for the event.
The teams are comprised primarily of players from the three local Division I schools – Pitt, Duquesne and Robert Morris – and there are a smattering of area Division II and III schools represented, as well, including Cal U, IUP, Shippensburg and Edinboro.
Below are the eight teams, with player and school listed (with Panthers, or former Panthers, in italics):
Billy Giles, Robert Morris
Kavon Stewart, Robert Morris
Rozelle Nix, Pitt
Damon Wilson, Pitt
Josh Steel, Duquesne
MarQywell Jackson, Duquesne
Dylan Groff, Amherst
South Hills Audi
David Cole, Robert Morris
Lorenzen Wright, Robert Morris
Jordan Robinson, Duquesne
Tarin Smith, Duquesne
Alan Heter, Point Park (alum)
Bill Clark, Duquesne (alum)
Joe Mascaro, Case Western
Brandon Burke, Robert Morris
Conrad Stephens, Robert Morris
Nakye Sanders, Duquesne
Mike Lewis, Duquesne
Nick Novak, Pitt-Johnstown (alum)
Anthony Dallier, Yale
CJ Rudisill, IUP
Duca/Nepa Road Warriors
Roberto Mantovani, Robert Morris
Clive Allen, Robert Morris
Sheldon Jeter, Pitt
Cam Johnson, Pitt
Lance Jeter, Nebraska (alum)
Julian Batts, St. Francis (N.Y.)
Jesse Reed, American (alum)
Seth Rouse, Robert Morris
Jordan Lester, Robert Morris
Jamel Artis, Pitt
Corey Manigault, Pitt
Spencer Littleson, Duquesne
Nick Miller, Cal U
Mike Lecak, Pitt (alum)
Kale Abrahamson, Duquesne
Rene Castro, Duquesne
Aaron Tate, Robert Morris
Dachon Burke, Robert Morris
Henry Pwono, no school listed
Dustin Sleva, Shippensburg
Clay Conner, Shippensburg
Antonio Kellem, Shippensburg
Isaiah Still, Robert Morris
Nate Johnson, Robert Morris
Darius Lewis, Duquesne
Emile Blackman, Duquesne
Jakim Donaldson, Edinboro (alum)
Mike Lamberti, West Liberty (alum)
Greg Duggan, Allegheny
Deon Baker, Saint Francis (Pa.)
Isiaha Mike, Duquesne
Eric James, Duquesne
Ryan Luther, Pitt
Justice Kithcart, Pitt
Chevy Troutman, Pitt (grad)
Teddy Georgias, NYU
A few notes and observations from the roster...
— Here’s a schedule of the games:
PBC Pro-Am schedule (Screenshot)
They begin Wednesday, July 6, at Montour High School and continue on the 11th and 13th. The week after that, I believe, will be for championship games.
— In all, there are eight Pitt players between the eight rosters, as well as two alums. Those not playing are Mike Young, Chris Jones, Jonathan Milligan and Crisshawn Clark, as well as walk-ons Zach Smith and Ryan Seelye. PBC president John Giammarco said the last he heard on Young was that they were “waiting on a final word”, so it’s possible the Panthers’ senior still plays. After all, there are a few open roster spots.
— Pretty cool for Sheldon Jeter to be paired on a team with former Nebraska standout Lance Jeter, his cousin. Beaver Falls royalty right there.
— Robert Morris newcomer Lorenzen Wright, Jr. is the son of former NBA player Lorenzen Wright, who was the victim of a still-unsolved homicide in 2010.
— I’m guessing Vegas won’t have any lines on this, but the Road Warriors would be my preseason favorite, though I wouldn’t overlook PBC. Having only six players, as of now, is rough, but among those six are two current Pitt players, a returning Duquesne starter, a heavily praised Duquesne freshman and, of course, Chevy Troutman.
— Speaking of Mr. Troutman, seeing his name was easily the highlight of looking over these rosters. He was a formidable and burly presence for some good Pitt teams of the early aughts, sure, but lest we forget his greatest contribution to Western civilization…
What a time to be alive. (Brian Batko/Post-Gazette)
Seeing Ron Cook’s mug one or two inches of newsprint away from a shirt reading ‘Booty Patrol’ brings me unspeakable joy.
— Finally, and I know I speak for a lot of people here, but I’m really excited to have the Pro-Am back. I can understand why it didn’t happen last summer, but it’s a great opportunity for fans who don’t normally go to games to get a close look at the players for their favorite teams. For writers like myself, it’s an excellent way to see returning players in game action and get a valuable first look at new additions. Granted, it’s important to keep some of these performances in proper context; while these games can be a great first glimpse at a future standout (like Robert Morris’ Marcquise Reed, who Pitt will face this year when it plays Clemson), it can also lead to out-sized expectations for a player who maybe just isn’t that great (like Duquesne’s Rene Castro, who scored a Pro-Am record 56 points in 2014 only to spend much of last season glued to the Dukes’ bench).
These are organized pick-up games, yes, but let’s just savor the fact that in this excitement-free sports wilderness known as baseball season, we will have basketball in our lives next week.
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
Maryland guard Melo Trimble (Getty Images)
Pitt released its non-conference schedule Tuesday, giving us college basketball devotees a small fix during a time of year in which news is in short supply, outside of parsing every word of recruits’ tweets (which, for your health, you probably shouldn’t do).
Some of the names are familiar and even exciting – Maryland! Penn State! – but the rest of the names are largely a smattering of schools most of us have heard of but know little of as it pertains to basketball. Too often, that means people dismiss these programs as nothing more than filler to occupy the space between higher-profile games. For fans of a team that had the 332nd-hardest non-conference schedule last season (of 351 teams), I can’t totally fault you all for the cynicism.
But since it’s June and there isn’t a whole lot else to do, let’s delve into these programs a bit to see what Pitt can expect. Since pairings for the 2K Classic haven’t been announced yet, I didn’t include any of those teams. As for the nine teams set in stone on the Panthers’ schedule, listed in order of when the games will take place…
2015-16 record: 23-7
Postseason: NCAA tournament, second round.
Final KenPom ranking: 42
Returning percentage of scoring: 50.1
The skinny: One of last March’s darlings, the Bulldogs bring back their most important piece from that team in guard Makai Mason, who poured in 31 points in their NCAA tournament upset of Baylor. After a brief dalliance with the NBA draft, Mason withdrew, giving Yale its leading scorer (16 points per game). Beyond Mason, however, the team loses many of its other top players, though North Allegheny grad Anthony Dallier (five points per game) is still on the roster. The Bulldogs have won at least 19 games in four of the past five seasons and have a good coach in James Jones, so a significant drop-off shouldn’t be expected. But this is far from the team that was eight points away from a Sweet 16 berth last season.
2015-16 record: 23-14
Postseason: CBI, championship round
Final KenPom ranking: 124
Returning percentage of scoring: 60.7
The skinny: A team whose coach, Sean Woods, is a great piece of bar trivia (he’s the guy who hit what looked to be the winning shot two seconds before Christian Laettner sunk his famous buzzer beater in 1992). In some ways, it’ll be a bit of a retooling year for the Eagles, who are down their two leading scorers from last season (one of whom, Corban Collins, transferred to Alabama). But, on the other hand, they bring back a fair majority of their scoring from a 23-win team that didn’t get completely blown out by Pitt last season.
2015-16 record: 27-9
Postseason: NCAA tournament, Sweet 16
Final KenPom ranking: 25
Returning percentage of scoring: 39.9
The skinny: Penn State may get more attention because of it being a rivalry game – and that Pitt and Penn State fans love to have banal back-and-forths on Twitter – but this, as of now, is the marquee game on the Panthers’ non-conference schedule. Few teams lost more from last season than the Terps, who will be down four of their five starters/leading scorers in Diamond Stone, Robert Carter, Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon. What they do bring back, however, is perhaps their most important piece – Melo Trimble. Though he had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, Trimble is still widely (and rightfully) considered one of the best point guards in college basketball. Maryland also adds a dependable low post presence in Duquesne grad transfer L.G. Gill, as well as the nation’s No. 15 recruiting class. I don’t totally agree with the assessment – this team did lose so damn much, after all – but the Terps are being floated around by some as a potential preseason top 25 team, something that speaks largely to how integral Trimble is.
2015-16 record: 17-17
Postseason: CBI, quarterfinals
Final KenPom ranking: 163
Returning percentage of scoring: 36.8
The skinny: It’s going to be an interesting season for the Dukes, who are still in search of a breakthrough under fifth-year coach Jim Ferry. They’re coming off a solid .500 season, but it was a group, at least offensively, that was heavily dependent on the senior backcourt of Micah Mason and Derrick Colter, each of whom logged significant minutes and provided much of the team’s scoring. They bring in two graduate transfers – Emile Blackman (15.8 points per game at Niagara) and Kale Abrahamson (11.1 at Drake) – and Nebraska transfer Tarin Smith is now eligible after sitting out last season. Smith is a fast and athletic guard who was Duquesne’s best player in practices last season, even better than Mason and Colter, but it will be interesting to see how far he and the transfers can carry a team that doesn’t bring back a whole lot.
2015-16 record: 20-15
Postseason: NCAA tournament, first round
Final KenPom ranking: 131
Returning percentage of scoring: 87.1
The skinny: This is one of those games that appears ho-hum at first glance, but gets really intriguing the more you look into it. The Bulls return their four leading scorers, each of whom averaged at least 11 points per game, from a team that made its second-consecutive NCAA tournament and came within seven points of beating Miami in a 3-14 matchup. This isn’t to say Buffalo will saunter into the Petersen Events Center and win, but it should give Pitt a tougher test than many may expect.
2015-16 record: 16-16
Final KenPom ranking: 146
Returning percentage of scoring: 60.6
The skinny: Pitt and Penn State picked a heck of a year to play again, mostly because of what an interesting season it should be for the Nittany Lions. Pat Chambers was, somehow, able to coax 16 wins out of a team I watched get bombarded by 22 against Duquesne last December. They lose leading scorer Brandon Taylor, but they bring in the country’s No. 22 recruiting class, with one top 50 player and two top 100 players. It’s an unheard of feat for Penn State to compile that kind of haul, so it will be interesting to see what Chambers can do with that influx of talent. Those new pieces, tantalizing as they are, will be freshmen, though, so the rewards that come with a vaunted class may not arrive for another year or so.
2015-16 record: 12-20
Final KenPom ranking: 266
Returning percentage of scoring: 75.3
The skinny: Probably the worst team on Pitt’s non-conference schedule, at least based on how it performed last season. The Owls, however, should be much better in 2016-17. They return four leading scorers from last season, including rising junior Marcus Evans, who averaged 21.4 points per game last season, the 16th-most of any Division I player.
2015-16 record: 18-14
Postseason: CBI, first round
Final KenPom ranking: 148
Returning percentage of scoring: 49.1
The skinny: If nothing else, this game could be a whole hell of a lot of fun to watch. The Mavericks were fifth in Division I adjusted tempo last season, averaging 77.1 possessions per game. Having sat courtside for their CBI matchup against Duquesne, a game in which they scored 80 points in the second half and still lost by eight, I can say with complete and total confidence they’re insanely fun to follow. Omaha loses a good amount of its scoring, but it does bring back two starters who averaged at least 12 points per game. Also, in the days leading up to this game, please don’t make Peyton Manning audible jokes. Please.
2015-16 record: 17-16
Final KenPom ranking: 142
Returning percentage of scoring: 81.9
The skinny: Speaking of teams that play at a Red Bull-laced tempo, we’re on to the Thundering Herd. Led by a D’Antoni brother (Dan, not Mike), Marshall was third in adjusted tempo last season while improving by six wins. That progress, at least theoretically, should continue in 2016-17. Six of the Herd’s seven leading scorers are back, placing it in a tier with Buffalo of teams who may present a firmer-than-expected challenge.
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
Vanderbilt's Wade Baldwin, a projected lottery pick in Thursday's NBA draft (USATSI)
The NBA is something of a four-letter word here in Pittsburgh – is it really just because there’s not a team here? – so I’m not sure how closely people will be following tonight’s draft. If you’re a Pitt fan, however, there is some relevancy to Thursday’s proceedings.
As I detailed in a story in today’s Post-Gazette, two of Kevin Stallings’ former players at Vanderbilt – Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones – are widely considered to be first-round NBA draft picks, with Baldwin almost universally projected as a lottery selection. Having two guys in that position is an impressive feat, one that has happened only once before time in the program’s history, but there are larger questions at play. Namely, what does that say about Stallings’ ability to recruit and develop talent? And can that translate to Pitt?
In Stallings’ 17 years at Vanderbilt, the Commodores had seven players get drafted. One of them, Dan Langhi, was already at the school when Stallings arrived in 1999 and another, Derrick Byars, transferred to Vanderbilt from Virginia. It’s also important to note that Raptors forward (and owner of a four-year $60-million contract) DeMarre Carroll played for Stallings for two seasons before transferring to Missouri to play for his uncle, Mike Anderson.
That is, undoubtedly, a pretty strong record, especially at a school that had 11 draft picks in the 33 years prior to Stallings’ tenure. What standing did these players have before arriving in Nashville? And what of their careers once they got to the NBA?
Let’s take a look.
Dan Langhi, 1999
31st overall pick (second round)
NBA stats: four seasons; 3 pts, 1.5 rebs per game.
Matt Freije, 2004
54th overall pick (second round)
NBA stats: Played two seasons (04-05, 06-07); 3.2 points, 2 rebs per game
Derrick Byars, 2007
42nd overall pick (second round)
NBA stats: 2 games with San Antonio in 2011-12 season; 5 pts, 5.5 rebs
Recruiting: 3 stars
Shan Foster, 2008
51st overall pick (second round)
Never played in an NBA game
Recruiting; 4 stars, No. 12 small forward
John Jenkins, 2012
23rd overall pick (first round)
NBA stats: fourth season; 5.2 pts, 1.5 rebs per game, 44.9 FG%, 36.3 3pt%. Averaged 4.1 ppg last season. Was traded midseason from Dallas to Phoenix.
Recruiting: 4 stars, No. 10 shooting guard
Festus Ezeli, 2012
30th overall pick (first round)
NBA stats: third season, all with Golden State; 4.2 points, 4.3 rebs and 1 block per game in 16.7 min per game. Averaged 7 points and 5.6 rebounds this season.
Recruiting: 3 stars, No. 48 center
Jeffrey Taylor, 2012
31st overall pick (second round)
NBA stats: Three seasons; 6.1 pts, 2 rebs per game
Recruiting: 3 stars, No. 24 small forward
Now plays in Spain.
There are a couple of things to glean from this. The first is that, if you don’t include Carroll, none of his players have done particularly well in the NBA, except for maybe Ezeli (if you ignore that gruesome Game Seven performance last Sunday).
The bigger point, though, is that aside from Foster and Jenkins, none of these players had more than three stars coming out of high school. Stallings’ plan at Vanderbilt was fairly straightforward when it comes to this topic. He wasn’t going to be able to lure surefire NBA talent, so he had to identify undervalued or overlooked assets and develop them to the point where they could be workable players in his system and, possibly, make it to the next level. The numbers say he was pretty good at executing that.
As has been noted from virtually the moment Stallings was hired, Vanderbilt has certain academic restrictions that can make it difficult for a coach to recruit a wide range of prospects. The prevailing thought has been Stallings will have an easier time trying to successfully sign some of those once-unattainable players at Pitt.
We’ll see if that turns out to be the case, but there’s something important that should be noted regarding Stallings and the NBA. In that 17-year span at Vanderbilt, when seven of his players were drafted, Pitt had eight players selected – Vonteego Cummings, Mark Blount, Chris Taft, Aaron Gray, Sam Young, DeJuan Blair, Steven Adams and Lamar Patterson. Granted, Stallings’ two players this year will allow him to surpass that Dixon/Howland total – unless, barring something incredibly unforeseen, James Robinson gets drafted – but it gives us a moment to tap the proverbial brakes a bit. Stallings did a nice job getting future NBA players to a campus where they didn’t flock to in droves in the past, but the man he’s replacing did as well as or better at that same task.
The importance of all of this is downplayed by some, but getting players to the NBA is an important skill for a coach to have. Save for a few exceptions, a vast majority of prospects enter college with NBA aspirations, even if it exists as nothing more than a pipe dream. Along with, maybe, a national championship, it’s the ultimate goal.
Schools like Vanderbilt and, to a lesser extent, Pitt are not regularly going to attract the highest-rated recruits, the ones seemingly destined for an NBA future. That’s not a knock; very few schools occupy that enviable tier. So, if you’re not in that rarefied air, the best you can do is get players, develop them to the closest thing to their full potential and send them off to the league. History, location and facilities are all important recruiting tools, but a proven track record of transforming players to the point where they make millions makes for a one hell of a pitch.
Inevitably, the problem for Stallings is that even with that NBA talent, he never made it past the Sweet 16 and his 2015-16 squad with two first-round picks went 19-14 and lost in the play-in round of the NCAA tournament.
And therein lies some of the trepidation with the Stallings hire. He has shown he can accrue talent; he just has yet to prove he can win big with it, something that can turn an otherwise celebratory occasion like tonight into a condemnation.
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG