What happened to Pitt basketball?

Originally Published: February 13, 2018
By Andrea Adelson

AP Photo/Keith SrakocicThings are a mess at Pittsburgh. Is coach Kevin Stallings' run ending?

The Pittsburgh basketball team gathers in a hotel conference room for their pregame breakfast just after 10:30 on a recent weekday morning in South Florida, helping themselves to pancakes, bacon, eggs, toast, cereal, yogurt, juice and hash browns.

Players eat quietly before leaving to get ready for shootaround. Assistant coaches and support staff linger a little longer, and the conversation turns to 1980s television and movies, and a rather heated debate over whether "Top Gun" is, in fact, a good movie. They fail to reach a consensus.

Eventually, the topic turns to this season. Pitt, once an NCAA tournament mainstay, is on pace to finish winless in conference play for the first time ever, and critics across Pittsburgh have loudly voiced their displeasure over where the program is headed. Coach Kevin Stallings has repeatedly praised his players both publicly and privately, adamantly insisting, "We will have success here."

Not too long ago, Pitt had a long streak of success: Between 2002 and 2016, Pitt missed only one NCAA tournament. But the program showed signs it had slipped in the final two seasons under Jamie Dixon, going to the NIT in 2015 and failing to make it out of the NCAA tournament's first round in 2016.

When Stallings took over last season, he inherited a team filled with seniors and with young players not suited for ACC play. Both he and those inside the program prepared for a rocky 2017-18: They had an NCAA-high 11 newcomers, zero returning starters and three total players with NCAA Division I experience on the roster when camp opened. That is not merely rebuilding; that is starting over with nothing to build off.

"It was told to me in the job interview, 'Hey, listen, this is what you have and this is what you're up against,'" said Stallings, whose team enters Tuesday night's game against Boston College at 8-18 overall and 0-13 in the ACC. The current 13-game losing streak is a program record.

"I took the job with my eyes wide open. We've taken the initial steps that we had to take to get it back on the right path, and that means we're getting our head bumped a little bit this year, which none of us enjoy, but it's just going to be a necessary part of it. We could have tried to quick-fix it and make it a better team this year but not have any ability to sustain success. But we took the approach that we're trying to build it, and build it right and have it last, and that probably made things a little bit worse in the short term, but hopefully it's going to make things better in the long run."

Despite the understanding that this season would be difficult, the questions about Stallings and the program have only increased as the losses have piled up. Patience among the fan base, at least, seems to be wearing thin. Attendance is down precipitously. A team that had consistently averaged 10,000 fans since the Petersen Events Center opened in 2002 has an average attendance of 4,154 this season. Players walk the campus hearing fellow students criticize their team.

Athletic director Heather Lyke has said she will evaluate the entire program once the season ends, only adding to the uncertainty. Stallings came to Pittsburgh believing he would have as much time as he needed to build Pitt into a true ACC contender. But the athletic director who told him that, Scott Barnes, is gone, and that has left the Pittsburgh coaching staff in a precarious situation.

They have shielded their players from the negativity as much as possible, and Stallings has opted for more positive reinforcement. The way the season started was only a prelude for what was to come: an opening loss Navy in the Armed Forces Classic, then another home loss to Montana. Pitt lost by 31 to Penn State and has lost its ACC games by an average of 20 points. It has lost six of those by 24 or more, including its past three. Among the most glaring issues: Pitt has no physical presence inside, and its shooters are streaky and inconsistent.

Coaches break down practice and game tape with players and show them lessons to take, believing those lessons will one day lead them to those elusive wins. Players do not hang their heads and sulk. There is no funereal attitude to practices and games despite the lopsided results.

They, too, believe they will win at Pitt. But will they get that chance?

Back at breakfast, special assistant Matt Woodley recalls the time he spent on staff with Tony Bennett at Washington State from 2006 to 2009. Before Bennett became head coach there, he worked under his dad, Dick, and the Cougars had three straight losing seasons before Tony eventually took over.

"They used to say this all the time: 'You've got to get a group of guys you can lose with first before you win,'" Woodley said.

Everyone at the table packs up their bags and folders and heads downstairs for the bus, where Stallings and players have already boarded. They head north on U.S. Route 1 toward the University of Miami for shootaround. Stallings watches from the scorer's table as his players go through warm-ups. This will be his first time coaching in the Watsco Center.

Soon, he and his assistants begin to work with their young players, encouraging them as much as possible. Then the real fun happens: a midcourt shooting contest. Everyone lines up to take a turn, and most miss badly. But Jonathan Milligan opts to shoot with his back to the rim. He launches the ball up, and it goes straight through the net. His teammates pile on him and celebrate. There are little victories here, laughs and smiles, too, despite the results.

On the way back to the hotel, Stallings drinks a Diet Dr. Pepper and muses about the game against Miami. Pitt simply does not match up well against the more athletic Hurricanes, but he believes his team will play far better than it did in their first meeting, which Miami won 67-53 in December.

Though Stallings knew there would be growing pains, nobody ever envisions a winless start to conference play. On this sunny Miami afternoon, Stallings remains confident in his plan for the program even after consecutive losing seasons.

To understand how Pitt got here, it is important to understand how Stallings got here.

"I wanted one more opportunity to build something, to do something," Stallings said. "I had been at Vanderbilt for 17 years and obviously had gotten very comfortable there, but the lure of the ACC ... I was ready for something different. I have tons of energy and tons of enthusiasm for what I do, and people I do it with. That's why I wanted one more."

But as soon as Stallings was announced as head coach last March, a vicious blowback followed. Barnes used a search firm whose president hired Stallings back at Vanderbilt and worked with Barnes at Washington. Many in the community felt the new coach was an uninspired choice to replace Dixon, who left for his alma mater, TCU. Dixon led Pitt to 11 NCAA tournament appearances, including two Sweet 16s (2004, 2007) and an Elite Eight (2009).

One local columnist wrote Barnes was "out of his mind" with the Stallings hire.

The warm, welcoming atmosphere generally reserved for introductory news conferences turned nasty with the first question, when a reporter asked Barnes to clue everyone in on what had just happened, and it only got worse from there.

Nine months later, Barnes left Pitt for Oregon State.

The Panthers ended up with a losing season and out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012-13, but what kept Stallings up at night was preparing for this season. He knew he was about to lose four senior starters, and he expected players to transfer.

But there was one thing he did not anticipate: Cameron Johnson wanted out to go to North Carolina. When Pitt, citing institutional policy, said Johnson could not transfer to an ACC school, Stallings bore the brunt of the backlash. Many local and national media outlets vilified him, calling him petty and vindictive.

Eventually, Pitt relented, but Stallings came away looking even worse. He repeatedly has said the decision was not his, but the negative perception persisted.

With essentially the entire roster turned over and little public support, Stallings had to prepare his inexperienced team to play in the ACC. But losing is never easy, especially for a fan base with elevated expectations.

The shifting dynamic from the Big East to the ACC has affected Pitt. Before joining the ACC in 2013, Pitt had 20 or more wins in 12 straight seasons. In four years in the ACC, Pitt has had one 20-win season -- and that was in Year 1. Dixon's final recruiting classes did nothing to help the Panthers build a foundation in a much more difficult conference, either.

Still, seeing Pitt at the bottom of the ACC standings remains jarring considering the program's past.

So what next?

That is the question confronting not only Stallings and his coaching staff but Lyke as well. Lyke also must consider the $10 million buyout owed to Stallings if he is fired. Stallings is asked whether immediate results are needed more in today's sports climate than when he first went to Vanderbilt.

"Do I think that I'll have the same kind of time that I had at Vanderbilt? No," he said. "We had a bad year my fourth year at Vanderbilt, but I was given a fifth year and we went to the Sweet 16, and then we went to the Sweet 16 a couple years later, but I don't sense that I'll have that long to produce [at Pittsburgh]. I think I'll have to produce more quickly than that."

Stallings has been around long enough to know that sometimes coaches are not given the time they are promised, and he is not completely closed off to the intense scrutiny surrounding him and his program in Pittsburgh.

"You get into this job knowing most people get fired," Stallings said. "And I can certainly sit here with 100 percent assuredness and tell you better coaches than me have been fired. But I'm going to keep doing the job that I do. I think our players appreciate me, and I think they appreciate our staff. I think they like how they're treated. I think they like how they're coached. I think I've got a pretty good grasp of how it's supposed to be done, and whatever else happens happens, because that's really out of my control."

So are injuries. The team's best returning player, Ryan Luther, has been out since mid-December with a stress fracture in his right foot. During a quiet moment in the team hotel after shootaround, Luther recalls going through workouts at the beginning of the summer -- workouts that featured only two teammates. Pitt was waiting on the rest to arrive.

"You never want to set limitations and think down that negative path, but I knew it would definitely be tough to get wins, especially in the ACC," Luther said. "I would have hoped I could have helped a little bit if I were playing, but I knew it was going to be tough."

He said the message from coaches has been simple: "Don't be OK with losing. Don't use that as an excuse, and keep working."

Stallings said his players have done that, and pointed to close games over the last month. Pitt held leads against NC State and Syracuse before eventually losing. Against Miami, Pitt overcame a halftime deficit to take the lead midway through the second half. But Miami outscored the Panthers 25-14 over the final 10 minutes and won. Pitt dropped to 0-9 in the ACC.

Afterward, Stallings said, "Our team is getting better. We don't have wins to show for it, and I feel horribly for my guys for that because they've been as coachable as any group that I've ever had. Hopefully, we keep getting better and we'll knock one off soon."

Freshman point guard Marcus Carr stood outside the locker room and was asked whether it was hard to have patience, considering the results. He mentioned his brother Duane Notice, who went to a Final Four at South Carolina.

"He came in with seven freshmen. A couple guys did end up leaving, but they kept the core group, and four years later they went to the Final Four," Carr said. "So I know something like this can happen when guys buy in and have the right attitude and stick their nose in and work hard."

Pitt will return the bulk of its team next season, including Luther, who anticipates getting a medical hardship waiver. St. John's transfer Malik Ellison is sitting out this season because of NCAA rules and will be a valuable addition when he is eligible next year.

Stallings, his coaches and players see what Pitt can become. The question is: Does anybody else?

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