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Breaking down Pitt's 2016-17 non-conference schedule

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 days ago

 


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…


 

YALE

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.


 

MOREHEAD STATE

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.


 

MARYLAND

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.


 

DUQUESNE

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.


 

BUFFALO

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.


 

PENN STATE

2015-16 record: 16-16

Postseason: None

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.


 

RICE

2015-16 record: 12-20

Postseason: None

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.


 

OMAHA

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.


 

MARSHALL

2015-16 record: 17-16

Postseason: None

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


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Kevin Stallings, the NBA draft and what it all means

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 week 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 3 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 4 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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