As the Pitt basketball team remains winless in the ACC this season, the future of Kevin Stallings has become a popular topic. In the past week, three local columnists have written commentaries on the subject, so I figured it was time to voice my opinion on the hot-button topic.
Stallings should return as Pitt’s basketball coach for the 2018 season. Period. Any thoughts on firing him are shortsighted and are coming from preconceived opinions about the man or people who still haven’t gotten over the departure of Jamie Dixon.
Here are the facts: the Pitt basketball job is a difficult one and the state in which Stallings and his staff inherited things made it long-term rebuild, not a one- or two-year fix. No matter who the coach has been, Pitt has rarely gotten recruits who have been able to step in and be instant difference makers. Even with Dixon and Ben Howland, they recruited kids who develop over time, not in one season.
Considering the inexperience of this year’s roster and with their best player injured, no coach in college basketball, short of maybe John Calipari, would have been able to win this year. I wouldn’t think it needs said that Calipari isn’t coming here, but some Pitt fans also thought Sean Miller was a realistic option. It never was.
Pitt isn’t the type of school that can get the recruits necessary to win while playing six freshmen in the regular rotation. Some will counter by saying that it’s his fault the roster is so young because he ran off so many players.
The players that left were Crisshawn Clark, Cam Johnson, Justice Kithcart, Corey Manigault, Rozelle Nix and Damon Wilson. Aside from Johnson, none of those players are contributing at a high level this season and none of those players would have been a better option for this year’s team.
The fact that the players that transferred from Pitt went to places like Old Dominion, Portland and South Alabama shows one of the reasons the program is in its current state: the horrible job of recruiting the last three years by Dixon.
Class of 2016: Clark, Kithcart, Manigault
Class of 2015: Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, Nix, Rafael Maia, Jonathan Milligan, Sterling Smith, Wilson
Class of 2014: Tyone Haughton, Sheldon Jeter, Johnson, Ryan Luther
Over three classes, Dixon didn’t recruit an impact player that was born outside the 724 area code. Dixon was against the move to the ACC. Perhaps his heart wasn’t in it and TCU was a perfect exit plan. With four transfers, and four junior college players over his last three classes, he certainly wasn’t recruiting like someone that was in it for the long haul.
Not to sound too rough but the roster when he left was in sad shape and any coach coming in was going to struggle because of the massive rebuild that would follow the graduation of the team’s four seniors in 2016-17.
Please don’t tell me about him not being able to win with Jamel Artis and Michael Young.
Although those two players are talented, the bottom line was Artis and Young cared a lot more about improving their NBA portfolio than they did winning basketball games. They were suspended and benched from the starting lineup multiple times for breaking team rules. They knew because of the situation Stallings was in, there was really nothing he could do to them.
“The problem isn’t who we are playing for, it is who we are playing with,” another player on the team told me at that time.
The other thing that gets overlooked about last years team and why Stallings “couldn’t win more” is the fact that the roster was flawed. Stallings was working with Artis, Young and not much else. The team had no point guard, no center, Luther missed most of the season, Young played through an injury and there was no size and nothing coming off the bench.
He had most of the pieces of what had been an NCAA Tournament team, but without a point guard or a big man, he didn’t have enough pieces to finish the puzzle.
Last year’s team was flawed and this year’s team is too young to win. Coaches never want to say to the fans that winning is out of the question, but that’s where Pitt is this year. I’ve always felt that this year was 100 percent about getting experience and developing guys like Terrell Brown, Marcus Carr, Kenechukwu Chukwuka, Khameron Davis, Peace Ilegomah, Parker Stewart and Shamiel Stevenson. That group is getting valuable ACC experience and showing some signs of getting better.
At the end of the season, Stallings and his staff need to be able to see real progress and development from a few of those players to give them hope for next season.
The 2018-19 season needs to be about some visible progress from the team in the win column. Next year can’t be solely about development. It has to result in conference wins. I’m not saying Pitt needs to be in the top five of the ACC, but it surely can’t be winless and at the bottom.
Considering that the entire 2017-18 rotation is returning, plus the addition of transfer Malik Ellison, the anticipated return of Luther and some size off the bench from incoming freshman Bryce Golden, Pitt should be much better equipped to compete.
Pitt would have to pay Kevin Stallings close to $10 million to walk away. If people think that Pitt can pay that much money and then go pay for a better coach, they’re crazy. What coach is going to want to come here, knowing how difficult the job currently is and the fact that the school only gave Stallings one year to coach his players? No one.
The attendance at the Pete has been brought up all year and rightfully so. Crowds have been embarrassingly low, but that’s not surprising. Aside from the Steelers, Pittsburgh sports fans only show up when their teams are winning. That’s true for every team in town and if Pitt basketball starts winning again, The Pete will once again will host large crowds. It’s really that simple.
The question is when will winning basketball return to Oakland and will the Pitt administration give Stallings and his staff another year to show that they can do that.
Pitt football coach Pat Narduzzi wasn’t hired by Heather Lyke, either. Coming off a 5-7 season, Narduzzi was just given a contract extension. When asked about her expectations for the football team, this is what Lyke had to say:
“The reality is, you have to evaluate the team every year. We had a young team. I knew that they had to rebuild in another way. We had a couple questionable key positions that I know coach was going to work through. But you have to trust coaches. That’s their job.”
That sounds awfully familiar to what the basketball team is going through right now. Stallings should return and if he doesn’t, shame on Lyke and company for caving to pressure from fans and donors. Anybody that’s thinking clearly would see that the current staff was in a near impossible situation.
I fully anticipate that I’ll get criticized for this column but I’m OK with that because bringing Stallings back for a third season is the right thing to do. Remember, what’s popular isn’t always right and what’s right isn’t always popular.