PITTSBURGH — When Pitt faced No. 7 Duke on Wednesday night, in what was almost certainly a first for the 15-year-old Petersen Events Center, nine true freshmen were in the starting lineups.
It was Duke veteran Grayson Allen and nine teenagers, and it drew a stark comparison between the state of the two programs. There were haves and have-nots. Duke’s four starting freshmen were Wendell Carter, Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Trevon Duval and Gary Trent.
Trent was a 5-star prospect and the No. 17 player in the country according to 247Sports. Carter was a 5-star prospect and the No. 7 player in the nation. Duval was a 5-star and No. 6. Bagley was the top-ranked player in the country. That’s four of the top 17 freshmen in the nation and three of the top seven.
Pitt’s most heralded player according to 247Sports’ national rank was Marcus Carr at No. 144. Peace Ilegomah was No. 253, Shamiel Stevenson was No. 263, Parker Stewart was No. 272 and Khameron Davis wasn’t even ranked.
It wasn’t men versus boys. It was boys versus boys. It just so happens that Duke’s boys are a whole lot better than Pitt’s, or as Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings succinctly put it, “Our freshmen don’t look like their freshmen.”
Not that looking like Duke’s freshmen class is a particularly fair standard for just about anyone.
“No one looks like Bagley,” Stallings said. “That dude is as good of a player as I think I’ve ever watched in preparation for somebody on film. He’s terrific. Terrific.”
Of course, it’s not an apples to apples comparison. Pitt is rebuilding its roster out of necessity because the cupboard was bare after years of sub-par recruiting and a group of mostly expected transfers following a coaching change. Duke is rebuilding its rosters with the very best players available in an attempt to win a National Championship.
The difference isn’t the difference between Stallings and Mike Krzyzewski or the difference between Durham, North Carolina and Pittsburgh or the difference between a school that has been in the ACC since 1953 and one that’s been there since 2013.
For the most part, Duke gets top-flight players because it is the kind of program where a talented young athlete can play right away, be relatively assured of advancement to the NBA and have an opportunity to play for a national title.
That’s not Pitt, it never has been, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon.
So then, how does Pitt compete with the likes of Duke — not to mention Louisville, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia and all the rest of the stumbling blocks the torturous ACC schedule provides?
The Panthers obviously aren’t going to be able to out-recruit Duke or the other teams at the top of the conference. The only way they can compete is to take advantage of the factor that is their common weakness in 2017-18: youth.
That isn’t necessarily a trait that’s exclusive to the Stallings era. A quick flip through the Pitt media guide will reveal that most of the Panthers’ most successful teams have been ones that were senior-laden with lots of depth, regardless of the man on the sideline.
“You get good young players and they grow together,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “This is their first year. They’re going to develop a camaraderie, a toughness and then whoever else is brought in, they’ll be able to teach that toughness and then all the sudden, it’ll go.”
Stallings entered the room minutes after Krzyzewski had left the podium, but their talking points were neatly aligned when it comes to the way forward for the Panthers in the ACC.
“We just have to try to fight our rear ends off and recruit well and also really work hard in developing the guys that we have,” Stallings said. “That’s grow them up, get them older, and then hopefully, when they’re juniors and seniors and not freshmen, they’re battle tested and they know how to play and they’ve improved a lot. All the sudden, you wake up one day and you have a good team.”
The visiting coach’s media availability after games at Petersen Events Center is typically just an excuse for a bunch of reporters that don’t cover that particular coach very often to pick his brain on the topic du jour. Those sessions typically involve the visitor treating the hometown head coach with kid gloves in the expectation that process will reverse itself down the road.
Not that Krzyzewski, at age 70 and with five National Championships and three Olympic gold medals to his name, has much to worry about. But it still would be worth taking his words with a grain of salt, had he not also shared his personal experience, which is far more valuable.
“At Duke, when I took over, we were 38-47 my first three years,” said Krzyzewski, who had his worst season in his second year with a 10-17 record in 1981-82.
It wasn’t an instant rebuild, either. His next season, they went 11-17, finished in seventh place and again were out in the first game of the ACC Tournament. Three years later, they were in the Final Four.
“The freshmen that were 11-17, their senior year … they finished 37-3,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not saying that will happen everywhere. But you hope for that level of success. You just have to stay with it.”
SIGNS OF PROGRESS
For Pitt, the implication is clear (and the results this year have matched) that it won’t be a quick rebuilding process. The players that the Panthers can put on the floor are simply not good enough to win in 2017-18. In order for Pitt to step forward, those players are going to have to improve as they mature, and Stallings and company will have to develop them.
“We have to do a great job of development and develop the kids that we have,” Stallings said. “That’s kind of been a formula that has worked for me over the course of my career: helping guys like Terrell Brown, Shamiel Stevenson, Kham Davis, Marcus Carr. Those guys might not have been as recruited as highly as some ofter guys, but have a chance to be really good players. Just keep working with them and keeping them positive about who they are and what they can become.”
Those signs of progress are going to be hard to find at times in the midst of what will likely be a historically bad season. But more than the win and loss record or the margin of defeat, the signs of progress — or lack thereof — from Pitt’s young players is what Stallings should be judged by in 2017-18, because that’s what holds the key to the team’s future success.
Despite the lopsided score throughout, the season’s biggest crowd of 9,081 at Petersen Events Center remained lively throughout, particularly the packed-to-capacity Oakland Zoo. If the Zoo had a favorite for the evening, it was Swedish sophomore Kene Chukwuka.
To this point in the season, Chukwuka’s play in practice has gotten rave reviews from his coaches and teammates. They say Chukwuka is an aggressive rebounder and defender than can also score and plays with an intensity level that borderlines on inappropriate for the setting.
The problem has been that the player described in practice hasn’t shown up much on game days. Chukuwka is averaging two points and 2.5 rebounds per game, even with more playing time than expected opening up with the loss of senior forward Ryan Luther to injury.
But against Duke, Chukwuka made an impact. He finished with eight points and four rebounds in 23 minutes while also doing his best to jam up Bagley. At one point, Chukwuka and Bagley were assessed simultaneous technical fouls, certainly and advantage for the Panthers.
“That’s just how I play,” Chukwuka said. “I always play as hard as I can every day in practice. … Off the bench, coming in with energy always helps.”
The fans appreciated the energy that Chukwuka brought to the lineup, which seemed a bit shellshocked by the skill and athleticism of the Blue Devils in the first 10 minutes of the game.
“That’s who Kene is,” junior guard Jared Wilson-Frame said. “We definitely appreciate that. Everybody does. You see the fans had to appreciate it, too. We show that love to him like the fans do every day in practice.”
What was the difference against Duke when most of the other Panthers had trouble getting to their game? Stallings thinks it’s just a matter of the game finally starting to slow down for him after making the transition from junior college to the ACC.
“He made some shots tonight, which is another thing we saw and we know he’s capable of, but the statistics don’t support that,” Stallings said. “You see it in practice, but you don’t see it in games. … He jumped up and made some shots yesterday in practice and I almost think that it was sort of a weight of his shoulders and he relaxed a little bit. Again, he always tries hard and he always plays hard. Sometimes, he just gets going too fast in his mind. It’s a process for him, slowing the game down. I thought tonight he slowed the game down.”
The development of freshmen isn’t consistent. Players will have good games and bad games, sometimes at inopportune times. But one of the things 2017-18 should tell us about the Pitt freshman class is what type of potential the have.
Carr isn’t going to score 19 points and make every shot he takes in every game he plays. But against High Point, he showed that he is a capable sharpshooter. Brown had 12 points and seven rebounds and showcased his abilities to create inside against Towson. For now, those results are outliers, but they show those players’ potential.
To this point, Chukwuka’s potential seemed to be a post player that had five fouls to give. But he showed something else against Duke with his offensive rebounds and general energy and spirit. Good teams need bench players that come into the game, create havoc inside, are hard to play against and build and keep momentum for their team.
If Chukwuka can be that alongside Pitt’s other forwards, he’ll have found a way to be a positive contributor for 2018 and beyond.
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