NEW YORK — Last year in St. Louis, after Pitt’s loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament, James Robinson cried.
When the former Pitt point guard spoke that night, it was obvious that he believed his team was capable of performing to a higher level and achieving even greater accomplishments than their tournament bid.
This year, after Pitt’s season-ending 75-63 loss to Virginia, the disappointment at the end of the career for four of Pitt’s seniors was certainly palpable inside the locker room at the Barclays Center.
But this felt different.
The Panthers players were certainly proud of their effort, and rightfully so. After falling behind by 11 points at the half, Pitt fought back to get to within one point of the Cavaliers before eventually succumbing.
Simply put, Virginia is the better basketball team. When Pitt beat the Cavaliers at home earlier this season, it took a 60-percent shooting night and overtime to complete the upset. That wasn’t in the cards on Wednesday night.
“We didn’t play great, but a lot of that had to do with Virginia,” head coach Kevin Stallings said. “But I’m proud of these guys. I’m proud of these seniors. I hope they feel like they can walk out of here holding their head high.”
“We didn’t give up all day,” said senior forward Sheldon Jeter. “We really didn’t give up the entire year. No matter how difficult it got, we just kept fighting. I’m really proud of the team for continuing to fight. … I think we showed a lot of resiliency this year. As coach says, anyone can win with a hand full of aces. We did the best we could with what we got. It just wasn’t good enough.”
That seems to be the overarching theme of this team. There’s plenty of talent in individual bits and pieces. Jamel Artis and Michael Young, at least, are likely to have successful professional careers. But there wasn’t enough talent to overcome adversity when it came. When Artis was suspended for the Duquesne game, the team lost without him. When Young and Ryan Luther went down with injuries within a day of each other, the team lost six straight games. When the team needed just one more shot to fall against Notre Dame and North Carolina, they couldn’t get one.
Now, with four starters and over 70 percent of the team’s scoring moving on, Stallings will go from a talent deficiency to an all-out rebuild. Stallings spoke at length about that process after the game.
“I think that it will be very difficult because we’re replacing some very good players and some guys that are very experienced and played a lot of basketball at Pitt,” he said. “We’re going to have to turn the page, and Cam Johnson and Ryan Luther are going to have to step up into prominent positions in the program in terms of leadership and productivity and things like that.
“Going forward, we’ll turn it over. We’ll turn it over. We’ll have a lot of new faces. We’ve already got six or seven guys in the fold and still looking for more. So it will have a facelift over the next year or two, a pretty thorough one.”
Stallings also expects the team to make a transition in terms of identity, as well.
“I didn’t want to come in here and blow up everything these guys knew,” he said. “You know, you’re going to do it this way, and I don’t care what you’ve learned. I tried to really accommodate who they were, what they had known, and other ways, and how they’ve had success.”
But going forward, he expects the team to more closely resemble his principles.
“It’s going to be a culture of accountability, a culture of unselfishness, of trying to do the right thing on and off the floor,” he said. “I’m not saying that these are shifts in what the culture has been in the past. I don’t know what the culture was before I got here. I’m just saying what it needs to be going forward.”