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Kevin Stallings, the NBA draft and what it all means

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 5 days ago

 


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.

Recruiting: N/A

 

Matt Freije, 2004

54th overall pick (second round)

NBA stats: Played two seasons (04-05, 06-07); 3.2 points, 2 rebs per game

Recruiting: N/A

 

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: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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Pitt's attendance notably declined in 2015-16

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 weeks ago

Even though the numbers weren’t yet available, the trend developing last season was obvious.

The Petersen Events Center, widely viewed as one of college basketball’s most raucous venues since it opened in 2002, lacked the same intensity and aura it had when Pitt was one of the sport’s top programs for a five or six-year stretch in the late aughts. People can cite a number of different reasons for that, but one of them doesn’t require a whole lot of nuance — there simply weren’t as many people there.

On Thursday, annual attendance figures from the NCAA revealed as much. During the 2015-16 season, Pitt’s average home attendance was 9,079, down from the 10,012 figure posted in 2014-15. Last season’s attendance mark was the program’s lowest in a season in which it made the NCAA tournament since moving to the Pete 14 years ago. Only one season, the infamous CBI run of 2012, saw lower attendance numbers (8,801).


Pitt's average attendance in 14 seasons at the Petersen Events Center (Craig Meyer/Post-Gazette)

The Panthers were eighth in the 14-team ACC in average attendance last season and 49th among Division I’s 351 teams. When removing the variable of venue size, Pitt was also eighth in the ACC in percentage of seats occupied (72.6 percent).

Pitt’s attendance fell 10.3 percent from the previous season, the third-biggest drop in the ACC, behind Boston College (-31.5 percent) and Syracuse (-10.5 percent), the former of which was an unspeakably awful major-conference basketball team.


ACC attendance numbers (Craig Meyer/Post-Gazette)

None of this, by the way, is a referendum on the fans. Fan-shaming has become a time-honored tactic in the age of social media — especially with Twitter accounts dedicated to photographing mostly-empty venues — but sports writers like myself, who get free admission to these games and (usually) free food, should almost always avoid chiding fans and telling them how to spend their time and money.

To me, the interesting thing about the attendance numbers from last season is that they give more credence to the theory that brewed much of that season, particularly once it ended — that Pitt basketball under Jamie Dixon, successful as it was, had gotten stagnant and created a certain level of apathy in the fan base. A weak non-conference slate — statistically, the program’s second-worst of the past decade — and a mediocre, .500 conference campaign certainly didn’t help, either.

Unless he’s inheriting an unrepentant dumpster fire of a situation, a first-year coach usually boosts attendance in college basketball, though we’ll see if that’s the case with Kevin Stallings. While his hire was met with raised eyebrows and, in some cases, outright anger, it feels like Pitt fans have warmed up a bit to the idea of him as the Panthers’ coach the past several months, both because of his own work and outside forces (i.e. never underestimate the power of the Pittsburgh sports media to elicit sympathy for a press conference subject).

Perhaps more than anything, what Dixon proved was that you can win big at Pitt and do so with the added advantage of one of the country’s best home-court advantages. Whether that can work with a different coach remains to be seen, especially for a program in a noticeably different position than it was even five years ago, from the man roaming the sideline to the size and tenor of the crowds that watch the games.

 

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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Pitt absent from early top 25 lists

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 weeks ago

Preseason top 25 rankings, the kind released within hours of a championship game’s final horn, are inherently useless, something even the outlets publishing them acknowledge with modifiers like ”Way-too-early”. They exist because people read them in droves, but they provide little in the way of insight and substance, especially when, at that point, there’s no firm idea of what players (or, in some cases, coaches) are returning.

Once a few weeks pass, however, a clearer picture emerges. This year, with the new rules in place for players entering the NBA draft, that moment of clarity took until late May to arrive. Now -— barring injuries, late commitments or some sort Baylor-esque catastrophe that throws an entire program into chaos -— the teams as they stand now are the ones that will take the court in early November when the season begins. And those early rankings have been updated to reflect that.

So where does that leave Pitt? Even with the uncertainty of a coaching change, the Panthers bring back six of their seven leading scorers from last season. Realistically, it’s a squad that could or should be on the precipice of these early rankings, if not included in them. The early results, though, indicate otherwise, as Pitt was not listed among the top 20-25 teams by several major outlets.

 

ESPN: Not ranked or included in honorable mention

Yahoo!: Not ranked, but included in ’others worthy of consideration’

CBS Sports: Not ranked

NBC Sports: Not ranked or included in ’others considered’

SB Nation: Not ranked or included in ’next five’

The Big Lead: Not ranked

ESPN Bracketology: Not included in the field

 

None of this is too damning or worth getting too worked up about, though I’m really surprised that Pitt — which returns all but one important contributor from a team that made last year’s NCAA tournament as a 10 seed — didn’t make Joe Lunardi’s early tournament field (if that does come to fruition, I can’t imagine the heat Kevin Stallings, already a pretty unpopular hire, would be facing).

These lists make one thing clear to me, though — the season really just needs to get here.

 

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG 


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Petersen Events Center improvements revealed

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 month ago

Lost in the shuffle of last night’s unveiling of the Pitt script uniforms for all 19 of the university’s teams — it’s alright to call it a fashion show, guys — was some interesting news about changes that will be made this year to the Petersen Events Center.

Pitt AD Scott Barnes had mentioned those improvements to me last week at the ACC spring meetings in Amelia Island, Fla., but on Wednesday night, mock-ups of those projects were revealed. The changes, for now, are mostly cosmetic. With the reintroduction of the script logo, the Panthers will be getting a new court. In addition to that, the team’s practice facility will be getting refurbished and there will be a new backdrop behind one of the baskets in which there will be banners for retired player numbers and an illustration of the Cathedral of Learning that Barnes said will light up after every men’s and women’s basketball win.

All that work, Barnes said, will be complete by the beginning of fall, so it will be ready for the upcoming season. Beyond that, he mentioned, without going into specifics, that the Petersen Events Center will be receiving more upgrades as part of a larger three-year plan.

“Literally every playing venue and practice venue that we have will get a facelift with the new Pitt script and some other branding elements that attract and inspire pride with our student-athletes, recruits and coaches,” Barnes said Wednesday. “That’s really the goal in everything we do, to inspire pride.”

Here are photos of those renderings that were on display last night:


New Pitt basketball court (Craig Meyer/Post-Gazette)

 


New backdrop in Petersen Events Center (Craig Meyer/Post-Gazette)

 


New practice court (Craig Meyer/Post-Gazette)

 

And, since it was the central reason for everyone being there last night, here are Pitt’s jerseys, for the two or three of you all that haven’t seen them yet. Personally, I’m a fan of the look, especially since they stuck to a clean and simple template. But the second anyone starts seeking fashion validation from me, they’re in a whole heap of trouble.

 

If you have any questions or comments about the new uniforms or the Pete improvements, feel free to comment below.

 

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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Kithcart, Manigault discuss decisions to stick with Pitt

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 month ago

The final signing date for Division I basketball prospects isn’t for another two weeks and while Pitt’s 2016 class isn’t fully set quite yet, Kevin Stallings picked up one of his first victories as the Panthers’ coach by holding on to three players who signed with the school when Jamie Dixon was still coach – Justice Kithcart, Corey Manigault and Crisshawn Clark.

Late last week, I spoke with both Kithcart and Manigault about their decision to stick with Pitt even with the coaching change, conversations which led to a story in today’s Post-Gazette.

** I’m planning on talking to Clark at some point, but I’m new on the beat and still don’t have phone numbers for some people. Hang in there.

Below is a transcript of both of those interviews, with questions in bold.


 

COREY MANIGAULT

What do you remember those days being like from when Jamie Dixon left to when Kevin Stallings was hired? Was it kind of an emotional roller coaster for you?

“It kind of was, just because it happened so fast. I didn’t really know what to do. I stepped back and looked at everything and reopened my recruitment. When coach Stallings got the job, he called me instantly to talk.”

About how quickly did he call you?

“On that Monday, I think.”

What were that conversation and some of those initial conversations like?

“We just talked about the things he wants, kind of like telling he knows how the situation is, how coaches move around. He gave me the space I needed instead of like hovering on top of me and really trying to get me to stay. He told me he really wanted me to stay and he knew how to use me. He likes the way I play and said it was on me. He didn’t want to force me to do anything. He just kind of left it up to me. I really liked that. He just had that good vibe from the start.”

You touched on it a little bit there, but what were some of your first impressions of coach Stallings?

“He was kind of cool. I talked to a few people and they told me how he was. He’s kind of relaxed instead of kind of tight. I didn’t really know him, but I met him at my school last week. He was just that kind of guy, the kind of guy that can have fun but knows when to be serious.”

What prompted you to open up your recruitment?

“I just had to step back and look at everything over again. I wanted to make sure this was what I really wanted to do.”

What was it that won you over, that made you recommit to Pitt?

“After I got off the phone with coach Stallings, I looked at some film. He kind of played the same way Dixon did, but it was just faster. His personality in general, he was somebody I felt comfortable with. And the coaching staff. I kind of know some of the coaches on the coaching staff from the recruiting process earlier. That was something that played another part.”

How difficult is it to make that kind of a big decision, choosing where you’re continuing your career and where you’re going to college, in such a cramped timeline, one where you make that kind of a decision in less than a week with a new coach?

“It was very hard. Coach Dixon and his staff, I really liked them. When I reopened my commitment, a bunch of schools were trying to come after me. It just felt right at Pittsburgh – the city, the people there. There was just something about Pittsburgh.”

Based on your conversations with Stallings, what do you envision your role being on the team next season? And how has that changed from how you thought it would be with coach Dixon?

“Coach Stallings, he said he lets his bigs play to their strengths. Basically, making mismatches for other bigs. I think I’m a versatile big who can get out and stretch myself out on the floor a lot. And help rebound, be a big rebounding presence.”


 

JUSTICE KITHCART

From when coach Dixon announced he was leaving until coach Stallings was hired and even going to when you decided to stick with Pitt, what do you remember that week or week and a half being like for you?

“I was talking to my parents about what we were going to do. I was trying to make the best decision for myself and my career, where I’m going to play the next four years and where I can get to the next level. That was the whole thing I was thinking about. I was just praying, trying to make the best decision for myself and my family.”

What was one instance or one moment in that whole scenario where you felt the most uncertain or were the most worried?

“After coach Dixon went to TCU and I didn’t know who the coach was going to be. Was this guy going to want me still? Would I come to Pittsburgh and contribute and be a part of the team? Was he going to treat me like his family, like coach Dixon treated me? Those were the main things I was wondering about.”

What went into your decision to de-commit after Stallings’ hire was announced?

“Me and my parents were talking and we thought the de-commitment was the best thing for me at the time. We wanted to weigh our options and not rush into anything. We still had Pitt on our list, of course, but we wanted coach Stallings to kind of recruit me like I was coming to Pitt kind of like he was trying to get me to Vanderbilt. I wanted to feel that type of connection with him.”

He was introduced as Pitt’s coach on March 28, I think a Monday. When did he first reach out to you?

“He contacted me either the day after or the day he got the job, I’m not sure. He definitely made it a point to contact me.”

What do you remember that first conversation or those first few conversations being like?

“I had talked to him previously because I was getting recruited by Vanderbilt. When I talked to him, he seemed like a straight shooter, which is what I got from him when I was talking to him at Vanderbilt. I felt like he had a good mindset for the team, a good mindset for me and I could tell he really wanted me. He liked the type of player I was and felt like I could fit in his system. That was great, getting that from him.”

What do you think it was that sold you and swayed you back to Pitt?

“Coach Stallings, he was straight up with me. He didn’t try to sell me a dream. He didn’t try to do too much. He told me how it was going to be. I feel like I can fit into his playing style. He’s a coach who lets his players play and that’s something I really like. I like a coach who will let me play because I’m not a guy who will do too great in a system where a coach wants you to run his specific style. I like a tough coach, but I kind of like that freedom coach Stallings gives you. That won me over.”

What were some of the differences you noticed between Stallings and Dixon, as far as how the recruiting process went and how they wanted to utilize you as a guard?

“A few of the differences were the playing style. Coach Dixon likes to play up and down, but it’s a little different than coach Stallings. That’s really all he [Stallings] wants to do. He wants to get up and down any chance he can. He wants to play a little bit faster and get up a lot of shots. That was one of the differences I saw. And I think coach Stallings is a little more fiery than coach Dixon, but they both get up in you when they have to.”

With James Robinson graduating, the point guard position is kind of up for grabs at Pitt. How do you envision your role freshman year? Do you feel like you have the chance to make an impact and play some big minutes?

“Most definitely. I’m trying to come in and start from day one. That’s my mindset. I’m just trying to come in and lead the team and contribute where I can. If I don’t start, I’ll give great minutes off the bench -- coming in and playing with energy, leading, talking, playing great defense, pushing the ball, scoring when I can. I’m trying to help the team win.”

How difficult is it to make such a life-changing decision – where you’re going to college and where you’re taking your career – in such a relatively short period of time?

“It’s definitely difficult. First off, making a college decision was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life, listening to different coaches, trying to find the right system, trying to find the right fan base, coaching staff, academics and all of that. It was definitely tough. Recommitting back to coach Stallings was tough, just because there wasn’t a lot of time. I had to get a good feel for coach Stallings. It made it easier that I already had a relationship with him previously. That made it a lot easier to make the decision.”

 

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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