LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The ink was barely dry on Pitt’s 26-point loss to the Louisville Cardinals at KFC Yum! Center on Tuesday, but all anyone wanted to talk about after the game was Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings’ comments to the crowd in Louisville.
Stallings responded to a heckler that he said was taking shots at his players with a barb regarding Louisville allegedly helping to pay freshman Brian Bowen $100,000 in exchange for committing with the school.
To say the least, Stallings has been a polarizing figure in the Pitt fanbase since his arrival, and essentially everything he’s done with the Panthers has been given extreme scrutiny. But it seems like Pitt fans are mostly on board with Stallings defending his team with a sharp-tongued critique at the expense of an opposing fan.
#PittTwitter poll. Curious about this one.
Do you think Kevin Stallings engaging with a heckler in the crowd at Louisville was …
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) January 3, 2018
Maybe more importantly than Stallings’ perception amongst the fanbase, sticking up for his team full of freshmen players, in a hostile road environment at Louisville, can only serve to help bring the team closer together.
Marcus Carr and Parker Stewart seemed wary of saying too much about the incident after the game, but neither player seemed at all bothered by their coach’s words.
“I was kind of focused on floor,” Stewart said. “I think when you’re out on the floor, you don’t really hear all of that. … It was somebody behind us that kept saying something.”
There’s another point that Stallings didn’t make, but it seems germane. Building a winning program is hard. Building a winning program in the ACC is really hard. Building a winning program in the ACC when you’re playing by one set of rules and other teams are playing by another, well, that’s probably extremely frustrating for a head coach, and while Stallings should probably be above such actions, the combination of his team getting shellacked on the floor by the very team that’s been alleged to be the most guilty of such violations was too much of a perfect storm for him to pass up.
By all accounts, both official and unofficial, Stallings has run a clean program at Pitt and that matches his reputation earned over several years at Vanderbilt. That’s something he and Pitt fans should be able to take pride in, win or lose.
IN BIG TROUBLE
Stallings’ words overshadowed what was a dreadful basketball game from a Pitt point of view. The Panthers came up short in their matchup with the Cardinals in just about every way possible, including, height.
Pitt’s been playing a small lineup without Ryan Luther in the mix and they continued that Tuesday. At one point, they only had one player taller than 6-foot-5 guard Jared Wilson-Frame in the game against Louisville quad towers in 6-foot-7 powerhouse Deng Adel, 6-foot-10 junior Ray Spalding, 6-foot-11 freshman Malik Williams and 7-foot Egyptian monster Anas Mahmoud.
Well, not really, Mahmoud’s a nice guy and very well spoken. But he’s a monster on the floor. He blocked two shots and Williams had one, but more than just the blocks, they clogged up the driving lanes and forced Pitt’s penetrating guards to look for options elsewhere instead of having their shots swatted down.
“We went in, we got some penetration, but their length, we knew it was formidable and a problem,” Stallings said. “It was certainly a problem for us.”
Carr said the team performed some practice drills to try to simulate facing a 7-foot defender in the lane, but that they didn’t always execute the way they needed to in order to overcome the size difference.
“The bigs definitely do affect certain shots, but there were also some layups that we could have had,” Carr said. “I know I missed a couple I could have just made. They definitely affected the game, but I don’t think it was that big of a deal, we just kind of took ourselves out of it.”
With inside game not much of an option, Pitt’s offense essentially became dependent on 3-point jump shooting. The problem with that is the Panthers went on an 8-minute scoreless streak for the second straight game that essentially sealed their fate.
“I’m sure that we took some contested ones because they got us late (in the shot clock,)” Stallings said. “But I thought we had a lot of open looks. A lot. I thought Jared (Wilson-Frame) had a lot of open looks, (Jonathan Milligan) had one or two, Parker and some that didn’t go in. We’re getting decent looks.”
When a team that needs to make shots to win stops making shots, it can have a demoralizing effect.
“If we’re going to be good, we probably need to hit a lot of shots,” Stewart said. “We have guys that can hit shots. We just have to hit them. … We have guys we see hit shots every day. I think it’ll come. We’ve just got to take time and get used to this game. We haven’t played (at this level) before.”
It hasn’t been a pretty start to ACC play for the Panthers, who have lost their first two games by a combined 30 points and are alone in last place in the conference.
It’s been a tough go individually for Carr, who was one of the team’s bright spots through non-conference play as a true freshman point guard, but has stumbled out of the gates in the league.
After being held without a point in 22 minutes against Miami, he scored 11 in 27 against the Cardinals, but shot just 4 of 12 (33 percent). According to Stallings, the difference hasn’t so much been Carr’s play, but the level of competition rising precipitously.
“Those two guys (Miami’s Ja’Quan and Louisville’s Quentin Snider) are doggone good, that’s part of it,” Stallings said. “These guys are, a lot of times, the best players on their team and that’s a tough position in this league. (Carr) hasn’t played great in these two games, but Marcus has been a good player for us. He’s going to be a very good player for us.”
LOST IN TRANSITION
Louisville shot 50 percent from the floor, the second-highest field goal percentage allowed by the Panthers this season. Stallings said that the issue wasn’t so much Pitt’s half-court defense, but the transition game that burned the Panthers.
The Cardinals weren’t scoring points on fast breaks in droves — they had eight — but they were able to get the ball down the floor and score before Pitt’s defense was fully set up.
“They drove to our goal in transition and that was why they were at 50 percent,” Stallings said. “I don’t know what they shot when we had a set defense, but they killed us in transition. They just kept getting it to our rim.”