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: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
With practice beginning later this week, and with his first season as Pitt’s coach officially beginning in six weeks, Kevin Stallings joined CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein on his “College Hoops Today” podcast to discuss a slew of topics, most notably the Panthers’ point guard situation.
After having few, if any, questions about the position for four years with James Robinson, Pitt now has a gaping hole at the spot on a veteran-laden team. It has three more traditional options at the spot, at least from a size and speed standpoint, in Justice Kithcart, Damon Wilson and Jonathan Milligan. Then, of course, there is the intriguing-but-unsettling possibility of Jamel Artis, who has been a small forward his three previous years in Oakland, manning the role.
As of now, Artis is what Stallings described to Rothstein as “the leader in the clubhouse” to be the team’s point guard. We’ve known for months that Artis is being seriously considered at the position, so I was a little surprised at, well, the surprise people exhibited yesterday when Rothstein tweeted that information out, especially given the Panthers’ inexperience beyond Artis. But with the season fewer than two months away, Artis remaining as not only a legitimate possibility at point guard but a favorite is news-worthy.
For context, Stallings’ full comment to Rothstein on the point guard situation is below…
“It could be something that’s done by committee. We’ve got I’d say three guys that have shown in practice, as point guards, they will help our team. Jamel Artis, who has been primarily a small forward here, would be the leader in the clubhouse at this point to be our starting point guard. Damon Wilson has certainly shown some signs of being able to be a very effective player, be it at the point or maybe in another guard spot. And Justice Kithcart, our freshman, is a guy who has a tremendous amount of tenacity and toughness to him for a freshman and could figure into the mix, as well. But right now, I would say Jamel is the guy who has the best chance. I’ve liked the look of him in practice at the point. He’s our team’s best passer. There’s a lot of upside to it, if he can establish himself as the guy. I think he’s doing that right now and hopefully he’ll continue to do that.”
As we get closer to the season, and perhaps even later this week, I’ll have a more in-depth breakdown of Pitt’s options at the position.
For now, here are some other highlights of Stallings’ appearance on the podcast. The full interview can be heard here.
** While Stallings inherits a talented and experienced team, what the program has beyond this year is a mystery largely dependent upon how successful he is in constructing his first recruiting class. Pitt has four seniors on its current roster and an open, unused scholarship that can be handed out to someone in the 2017 class, meaning it has at least five scholarships to fill for the 2017-18 season.
The importance of that task is not lost on Stallings.
“That may be the most important thing we’re doing right now,” he said. “As much time as we need to spend with these guys and getting ready for this season, we have an extremely heavy lift in front of us relative to turning our team over. We could very well be looking at signing five, six or maybe even seven guys depending on if you have a guy leave, which happens a lot in your first year. The good news to that is we’re going to turn the team over and maybe half of our team will be guys we have recruited. The downside of it, obviously, is your second year will feel like you’re going through year one again. It’s certainly a critical aspect of what we’re doing. We’re excited about it.”
** Sheldon Jeter and Chris Jones, according to Stallings, have shown as much progress as anyone on Pitt’s team since he arrived at the school in late March.
** Stallings was asked about how he was first contacted about the Pitt job and, in response, he provided the following timeline:
He was down at spring training in Florida in March watching his son, Jacob, play. He and his family were driving from Bradenton, the Pirates’ spring training home, to Fort Myers to watch Jacob play against the Red Sox. During that trip, his phone rang and he was asked if he’d have any interest in the Pitt job. He replied by saying he’d have to talk to his family about it, a convenient proposal seeing as they were all packed in the car with him.
His wife, Lisa, provided a quick response.
“You’ve turned down quite a few jobs in the last several years because of timing for our family,” Stallings recalled her saying. “Make this decision for you.”
After mulling it over for a few hours, he called back and expressed his interest. Two or three days later, by his estimation, he interviewed for the position and a day or two after that, he accepted the job. The Pirates and Red Sox played on March 25, three days before Stallings was introduced as coach, so the process may have been even quicker than Stallings remembered, unless of course they were driving to Fort Myers the day before (the two teams also played on March 14, but that was four days before Pitt’s season-ending loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament and one week before Jamie Dixon left for TCU).
** Given the height and athleticism of his team, Stallings envisions Pitt being a matchup problem for teams they face.
“The flexibility we will have both offensively and defensively could make us difficult to play against if we can utilize those things in the right capacity,” he said. “It will be a little bit of a different team for me, but it’s one I’m really energized about and really excited to coach because of a different approach we can take with it and, in some ways, a different approach we have to take with it.”
** As opposed to Vanderbilt, where he was handcuffed by the school’s academic restrictions, Stallings said recruiting has been easier and more natural at Pitt.
“Very refreshing, quite frankly,” he said. “It’s nice to have a larger recruiting pool and it’s fun to be able to go into different kinds of environments and recruit different kinds of kids. As long as I was at Vanderbilt, it feels more natural to me this way.”
** Without going into details, he said he has regrets from his time at Vanderbilt.
“Certainly there are some incidents I would have changed and some other things like that, but I don’t reflect that much and say ‘I wish I would have done this or hadn’t done that,’” Stallings said. “Most of my time is spent looking forward.”
** And as for how he would have responded to people who told him last year he’d end up being the head coach at Pitt?
“I would have laughed heartily,” he said. “I did not see this coming, but I’m excited it did come. I’m excited I have this opportunity.”
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
Anyone who follows Pitt basketball with even a modicum of interest has known for seven months what Pitt’s ACC schedule would look like as far as the opponents and game locations were concerned.
The arrangement of those matchups, a smaller but sometimes really important detail, was unknown over that time, though. On Monday, almost two months exactly until the Panthers’ basketball season kicks off, we found out.
What stands out, of course, is Pitt’s rotation of repeat opponents, a group that includes three teams that are listed in the top 15 of almost any preseason ranking — North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville — as well as a Syracuse team that many have as a top-25 squad after its surprise run to the Final Four last season. We knew as much based off the ACC’s announcement in February, but now, we have the full order in which those games will take place.
Pitt's 2016-17 ACC schedule (Craig Meyer/Post-Gazette)
I have a separate table detailing this that I tweeted, but the winning percentage last season of Pitt’s four repeat opponents this season is .745, with those foes going a combined 108-37 last season. That, by far, is the highest mark of any ACC team. The next-closest team, Virginia, has repeat opponents with a win percentage of .698 last season, meaning the gap between the No. 1 and No. 2 team in this category is as great as the difference between the No. 2 and No. 7 team.
A few thoughts and observations regarding the schedule...
** The thing that immediately stood out to me and several other people was the three-game stretch against Virginia, at Syracuse and at Louisville. There’s obviously the challenge of having to play three teams that will likely begin the season ranked, but having to do so in a stretch of just seven days will be a brutal welcome to conference play.
Even the ACC opener against Notre Dame that precedes that trio of matchups won’t be easy; while the game’s at home and it comes against a team having to replace some key pieces, the Irish have won at least 20 games in nine of the past 10 seasons.
** Ten of Pitt’s 18 conference games will come against teams ranked in ESPN’s most recent top 25, which was compiled after players’ NBA draft decisions were finalized. If we look at the Panthers’ entire schedule, 11 of their 31 games are against such teams and if it’s extended to include the teams listed under ’honorable mention,’ that number increases to 13.
** As difficult as the schedule is, Pitt never plays more than three consecutive games on the road. While the first two contests in that stretch are against North Carolina and Duke, the third is against Boston College, proving there’s some benevolence in the hearts of the scheduling gods.
** Aside from the week-long gap between the North Carolina State and Louisville games, the Panthers won’t have more than a four-day break between ACC games.
** Two of Pitt’s repeat ACC opponents, Syracuse and Louisville, were handled by the Panthers with varying degrees of success the past several years, going back to their days in the Big East. The Panthers have won nine of their past 13 meetings with the Orange dating back to the 2008-09 season, including their past five, but they’ve gone 1-9 against the Cardinals in that same span. All of that occurred under Jamie Dixon, though, with his teams often getting the better of Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone while never being able to contend with Louisville’s unrelenting press and (typically) superior athleticism.
It’ll be interesting to see if their fortunes against those respective programs change at all under Kevin Stallings.
** All of the conference games will be televised. The ‘RSN’ listed for several of the games is shorthand for the ACC’s regional sports network, which, in Pitt’s case, includes Root Sports.
I also got the chance to talk to Kevin Stallings for a few minutes this afternoon about the schedule and some of his immediate impressions of it. Below are some of his comments from that conversation:
On what immediately stood out to him: “It’s certainly exciting. It looks almost comically difficult. It’s just one really good team after another, but that’s the part that makes it exciting. I used to feel the same way when I looked at an SEC schedule. I just thought ‘Gosh, this looks hard,’ but it looks hard every year. I’m sure that will be the case with any ACC schedule I receive, too. It’s obviously an exciting challenge. It’s something our players will embrace readily. It’s certainly a motivator, as well to try to get our team as ready to play as we can.”
[Quick note on this: Tone’s never evident when something is in text, be it on Twitter or in a newspaper. When Stallings said it was ’almost comically difficult’ he did so with a slight chuckle, making a lighthearted note that a lot of other people did about the schedule, but just in different terms. Simply put, it’s really, really hard. I took that phrase as more of a coach stressing out and obsessing over the games rather than waving a white flag and effectively saying ’Oh my god, I’m so overwhelmed.’]
On if he prefers having that rough three-game stretch earlier: “We have 18 to play and the 18 are very, very difficult. You start with your two permanent opponents, two of the premier programs in college basketball in Syracuse and Louisville, and you work from there. Our other two-play opponents this year are Virginia and North Carolina, so right there are eight of your 18 games. You have three hall-of-fame coaches and another that might be on his way. It’s just very difficult from start to finish.”
On his adjustment from the SEC to the ACC: “Any time you go from one league to another, there’s an adjustment because there are things you get used to after a period of time being in one league, whether it’s opposing venues or whatever. This will obviously be a very new challenge for me. My players, at least most of them, will be more experienced at it than I am in terms of the different places we play and even our home court for that matter. It’s the reason I took the job. It’s the reason I wanted to be at Pitt, because of the challenges of the ACC and the excitement of trying to bring a championship-level program to the University of Pittsburgh.”
And one final note...
I can confirm that Pitt will be playing in the 2017 Legends Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, along with Penn State, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. The news was reported earlier today by Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports.
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
I’m not going to attempt to sugarcoat or justify this – it’s early August, we’re still three months from basketball season and with training camp not starting until next week for Pitt football, I’m a little bored.
Jamie Dixon’s departure to TCU in March provided a quick and clear demarcation for the end of the most successful era in the history of Pitt basketball. The apex of that success was achieved years ago and hasn’t been reached since, but without Dixon’s presence, we’re clearly on to a new chapter in the program’s history.
With that move, and with some precious downtime at work, I decided to rank Dixon’s 13 teams. It’s an inherently arbitrary exercise, but I based it off a combination of a few different variables – mostly the team’s record, how far it advanced in the NCAA tournament, its offensive and defensive efficiency numbers, as well as, to a lesser extent, the amount of professional (namely NBA) talent it had.
I would have tried to do a slide show, but I figured an early August ranking of past Pitt teams was click-baity enough. After reading, feel free to use Twitter and/or the comments section to call me an idiot. And here we go…
Record, postseason result: 22-17 (5-13), won the CBI
Final KenPom rank: 68
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 31/149
The team that blessed everyone with the ecstasy of #CBIncredible is the same one that earns this ignominious, totally meaningless distinction. What made this season so difficult to stomach for Pitt fans stems from the way this team was viewed heading into it. The Panthers returned seven of their 10 leading scorers from a 2010-11 team that earned a No. 1 seed and were adding a top-15 recruit in Khem Birch, two things that helped make them into a preseason top-10 team.
From there, it all fell apart. Birch was gone by mid-December, leaving the program under strange circumstances. Second-leading scorer Tray Woodall missed 11 games with a groin/abdominal injury. Non-conference losses to Wagner and Long Beach State shattered any illusion that this team, despite its 11-2 record, was anything formidable. The Wagner setback marked the start of an eight-game losing streak and a brief four-game rebound was followed by a five-game losing streak. Only two wins against 13-19 St. John’s prevented Pitt from finishing the regular season under .500.
To their credit, it mustered up enough of…something…to win the CBI, beating Washington State in a best-of-three championship series, 2-1. This team, unlike ones listed just above it, didn’t struggle because of inherent mediocrity or some kind of incompetency; due to a confluence of factors, it was just kind of a mess. At the very least, though, it led to the most somber, and therefore excellent, championship picture ever taken.
At least Malcolm Gilbert was enjoying the moment.
Record, postseason result: 19-15 (8-10), lost in NIT first round
Final KenPom rank: 78
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 30/202
Statistically speaking, this team makes the strongest case for being the worst of Dixon’s tenure. By most any meaningful measurement, this group was even worse than the aforementioned CBI champions. The only reason they avoided the bottom spot is because a) they won more than five conference games b) they made a better tournament and c) I’m an arbitrary person who’s easily swayed by those two earlier-stated facts.
Defensively, this was, by far, the weakest team of Dixon’s career, a title that may live forever even after he tries to rebuild the charred remains of a program Trent Johnson left him at TCU. The Panthers gave up 104 points per 100 possessions, meaning the only thing that kept them from allowing some really gaudy point totals was their slow-as-fingernails-growing tempo (among the 30 slowest in Division I). The NIT loss to George Washington also remains one of the worst games I’ve ever forced myself to watch.
Record, postseason result: 21-12 (9-9), lost in NCAA first round
Final KenPom rank: 43
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 41/56
Dixon’s final Pitt team was one in a handful that made his eventual exit much easier to comprehend. This was, by far, his worst NCAA tournament representative, one that was probably the only one that could be considered a legitimate bubble team.
A promising 14-1 start, albeit one achieved primarily by beating up on the 20th-easiest non-conference schedule in Division I, was undone rather quickly and precipitously. The Panthers lost nine of their final 15 games, six of which were decided by at least two possessions. They weren’t without talent – Mike Young, Jamel Artis, Sheldon Jeter and James Robinson are all good players – but while they weren’t particularly bad at anything, except outside shooting, they weren’t especially strong in any area besides offensive rebounding and, if we’re in search of silver linings, free-throw shooting. And, as it was in many of their worst seasons, their run ended with an unsightly loss.
Record, postseason result: 20-9 (10-6), lost in NCAA first round
Final KenPom rank: 21
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 12/58
This moment deserves a statue. (Brian Batko/Post-Gazette)
The season that blessed us with “Booty Patrol”, a topic that I won’t delve into in depth since I already did so with the summer league roster post (but I included the picture for good measure). It was somewhat of a disappointing record for a team that started the season at 17 in the preseason poll and climbed into the top 10 in December before coming apart late and falling out of the poll entirely, a drop that ended with a 79-71 loss to Pacific in the NCAA tournament.
Carl Krauser improved on his already-strong sophomore year numbers with a line of 16 points, 5.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game while our man Chevy Troutman played to the standard of a man who would sport such an awesome shirt to an NCAA watch party. With Aaron Gray, Levon Kendall and Antonio Graves all sophomores on this squad, and with Krauser coming back for his senior year, it’s interesting (and, for Pitt fans, hard) to think about what the 2005-06 Panthers could have done had Chris Taft not entered the NBA draft after this season. What could have been.
Record, postseason result: 26-10 (11-7), lost in NCAA second round
Final KenPom rank: 19
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 19/29
A sneakily decent team, the 2013-14 Panthers finishing in the bottom five of this list is proof that Dixon’s time at Pitt was undeniably and sometimes wildly successful. Pitt experienced its share of struggles in its first ACC season, losing four of its final seven regular-season games after a 20-4 start. That subpar finish relegated it to a No. 9 seed and created a scenario in which it had to play No. 1 overall seed Florida in the second round, a game in which it lost by 16.
During this campaign, Lamar Patterson turned in one of the better seasons in recent Pitt history, averaging 17.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on his way to earning second-team all-ACC honors and being selected in the second round of the NBA draft.
Record, postseason result: 22-9 (10-8), lost in NCAA second round
Final KenPom rank: 24
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 12/64
This was a team that, when I first started doing this, I planned on ranking higher. On paper, it’s a pretty impressive group, one that, most notably, won the Big East tournament.
When you dig a little deeper, though, what you find is a pretty thin resume. This was the worst defensive team of Dixon’s first eight seasons, giving up 99.3 points per 100 possessions. In contrast to teams ranked higher on this list, this Panthers’ season featured a handful of puzzling losses like double-digit loss at 11-20 Rutgers, a loss at rebuilding Cincinnati and a 25-point stomping at the feet of Dayton.
Pitt’s season remains one of unfulfilled promise due to Mike Cook’s torn ACL in a thrilling 65-64 overtime victory against Duke that ended his season and, ultimately, college career. To that point, Cook had been averaging 10.4 points per game, the fourth-most on the team, so it stands to reason he would have been an important piece the rest of the way for what was then an undefeated team. Instead, this team’s legacy may be as a group that took its lumps and gained another year of experience before coalescing into an absolute force the following season.
Record, postseason result: 25-9 (13-5), lost in NCAA second round
Final KenPom rank: 25
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 45/28
Perhaps no team in Dixon’s tenure surprised more than his 2009-10 squad. The Panthers had to replace four of the top five scorers from their loaded 2008-09 Elite Eight team, prompting some to believe the following year would represent something of a rebuild. What they uncovered in that process was a collection of strong, dependable and developing contributors.
Four players – in order, Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Jermaine Dixon – averaged at least 10 points per game. Gibbs’ jump was particularly noticeable, going from 4.3 points in 10.7 minutes per game to 15.7 points in 34.6 points per game. The 2009-10 group wildly exceeded preseason expectations, cracking the top 10 in mid-January after beginning the season unranked. That run ended with two missed 3s in the final three seconds that would have sent their game against Xavier into overtime.
Record, postseason result: 24-9 (12-6), lost in NCAA first round
Final KenPom rank: 11
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 17/21
I didn’t think I would rank a team that bowed out in the first round of the tournament this high, but alas, here we are. This team, in some ways, is the opposite of the 2007-08 group, one whose resume is a lot stronger than many people (or at least I) remember. With Talib Zanna and Steven Adams, the Panthers were one of the best rebounding teams in the country, with Tray Woodall and Lamar Patterson leading the way offensively.
This group, like some others on the list, remains something of a ‘What if?’. What if Adams had been more developed or used more effectively, a question that gets posed with his each passing year in the NBA? What if a team with really strong credentials were rewarded with more than an eight seed? Once there, what if they didn’t have to face a Wichita State squad that came within four points of knocking off the eventual national champions in the Final Four?
Overall, this stands as a very balanced team that gets overlooked in the program’s recent history because it suffered first-round exits in its two postseason tournaments and had the misfortune of being paired against one of the best non-major conference teams of the past quarter-century.
Steven Adams in his lone City Game. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)
[Side note: One of the biggest tragedies in the history of Pittsburgh sports is Adams not being able to peacock his full and genuine personality while he was in Oakland. Whoever is responsible for depriving us of that wonderful character in his one year here – whether it was Dixon, Pitt media relations or the media itself – deserves some serious shaming.]
Record, postseason result: 25-8 (10-6), lost in NCAA second round
Final KenPom rank: 11
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 25/11
This team provided some wonderful memories, none of which conjure as much joy as the TV score icon from the Panthers’ second-round loss against Bradley.
Gray morphed from little-used, clumsy-looking white big into a legitimate star who averaged a double-double (13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds) and made first-team all-Big East. Sam Young, as a freshman, gave fans a sneak peek at a player who would eventually blossom into a star by his senior year. Krauser, in the final year of his lengthy run on campus, made a slew of 3s and threw up a whole bunch of Xs.
It was a group that surprised many, going from unranked at the beginning of the year (and into 2006) to No. 8 in the country by the end of February. They stumbled against Bradley in the second round, giving up 28 points to Patrick O’Bryant, who parlayed a strong tournament and a 7-foot frame into the No. 9 overall pick in the NBA draft. There was once a time when the Warriors didn’t always made great decisions.
Record, postseason result: 29-8 (12-4), lost in Sweet 16
Final KenPom rank: 11
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 14/30
If these rankings were divided into groups, the 2006-07 Panthers would find themselves at the top of a second tier muddled with teams that lost eight to 10 games and experienced varied levels of success in the NCAA tournament.
Pitt entered the season with high expectations, ranked No. 4 in the AP preseason poll after bringing back six of their seven leading scorers from the previous year. They shouldered those hopes fine, rebounding from two December losses to win 22 of their first 25 games. From there, though, they dropped five of their final 12 games, including a nine-point loss to UCLA and former coach Ben Howland in the Sweet 16.
Gray pieced together one of the more statistically well-rounded seasons in Dixon’s tenure, averaging 13.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game as a senior. Given the lofty goals affixed to the team entering the season, though, it’s hard to think of this season without at least a small dash of disappointment.
Record, postseason result: 28-6 (15-3), lost in NCAA second round
Final KenPom rank: 3
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 4/22
In retrospect, this was a team that simultaneously overachieved and underachieved, if that makes any sense. The sudden and incredibly bitter end of losing in the second round as a No. 1 seed to Butler – which ended up making it to its second-consecutive national title game – is unavoidable when discussing this team, but it’s pretty remarkable that they achieved what they did to even get to that point
Unlike the two teams ahead of it, the 2010-11 Panthers had no player among its top nine scorers eventually selected in the NBA draft. Granted, that’s far from an end-all-be-all measurement of a good college team. Countless college teams have exceled without much, if any, next-level talent; it is, however, a pretty good indication of how many true difference-makers there are on a team, the kind of players that can propel a program to Final Fours and championships.
Regardless, this was a team that won the Big East regular season championship in a year in which the conference sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA tournament, nine of whom made up the teams with the highest 24 seeds. When you take all of this into consideration, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this was Dixon’s single best coaching job at Pitt.
Record, postseason result: 31-5 (13-3), lost in Sweet 16
Final KenPom rank: 4
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 25/1
Dixon’s first team at Pitt, the 2003-04 iteration of the Panthers was arguably his best in his time in Oakland. An already extremely stingy defense improved from where it was the prior season to become the best in the country, about one full point per 100 possessions better than second-place Louisville.
Led by a breakout sophomore season from Krauser, Pitt won its first 18 games and 22 of its first 23. This group didn’t ascend to the top of the AP poll like the 2008-09 team, but it did peak at No. 3, a laudable accomplishment for a program that was only five years removed from a string of mediocre coaching stints.
Holy hell, Jamie Dixon looked young at the beginning of his tenure.
There were a few odd results in there – a 79-74 win against Division II Georgetown College stands out – but this was a consistently excellent group that allowed opponents to break the 70-point barrier only three times in 36 games. Its season ended with a Sweet 16 loss against a really good Oklahoma State team, a game in which Pitt shot 36 percent and scored only 23 points in the second half. Sure, that subjected us to pre-Final Four coverage in which the Dickie Vs of the world puzzlingly labeled Eddie Sutton a “class act”, but it can’t take away from an otherwise stellar debut season.
Record, postseason result: 31-5 (15-3), lost in Elite Eight
Final KenPom rank: 4
Offensive/defensive efficiency rank: 2/24
An argument could be made for the 2003-04 team, or even the 2010-11 squad, but for me, there was no other feasible option at the top spot. This team basically had it all; it seemed that way at the time and it’s even more apparent seven years later. You had the burly center who rebounded at a rate unmatched in the KenPom era (going back to 2001-02), a prodigious talent who, quite literally, grew up and attended high school in Pitt’s backyard. There was the athletic specimen on the wing who was just as effective shooting from deep as he was flying for thunderous jams (and who had the most beautiful pump fake I’ve ever seen). And then there was the point guard, the burly maestro who put it all together and made one of the country’s best offenses hum.
If there were ever a year for Pitt to make the Final Four or even win a national championship in the Dixon era, this was it, a point that probably doesn’t need to be belabored too much for the sake of Pitt fans’ collective sanity. The Panthers were a juggernaut that season, recording all but one of their 31 wins by at least six points and never losing consecutive games.
It’s hard to say how Pitt would have fared against a star-studded North Carolina team in the Final Four had it knocked off Villanova. At the very least, we would have gotten an awesome DeJuan Blair-Tyler Hansbrough matchup in which Blair, for the betterment of western civilization, could have flung that pasty, bug-eyed oaf to the court, much like he did to Hasheem Thabeet earlier in the season. Alas, we’ll never know if that would have come to fruition, something that probably lingers as this team’s most painful shortcoming.
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
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: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG