PITTSBURGH — The Pitt men’s basketball team is halfway to a winless season in Atlantic Coast Conference play under second-year head coach Kevin Stallings, and questions about his future with the team have become more common in recent days.
But Stallings remains steadfast that his team will continue to improve throughout the 2017-18 season and has the ability to improve dramatically when 2018-19 rolls around.
“These guys are making progress, they’re continuing to be very coachable and continuing to have great attitudes towards practice and towards games and towards each other and towards us,” Stallings said after Pitt lost by five to Syracuse on Saturday. “There probably weren’t a ton of eighteen-point, thirteen-rebound games in the league today. … There probably weren’t a bunch of point guards in the league today that got 16 points and 12 assists. Our kids are getting better.”
Stallings was referring to the individual performances of junior junior college transfer Jared Wilson-Frame and freshman point guard Marcus Carr against the Orange. Wilson-Frame also had 22 points against NC State earlier in the week and freshman shooting guard Parker Stewart set a Pitt record with seven 3-pointers the last time Pitt played Syracuse. The individual improvements, combined with the emergence of Pitt’s 2-3 zone defense as a reliable option, have combined to make the results much closer for the Panthers as of late.
But they haven’t been able to break through for a victory and now embark on a three-game stretch where one seems unlikely: at Miami on Wednesday, at No. 19 North Carolina and at No. 20 Clemson. The schedule does lighten up down the stretch, but it’s pretty clear at this point that the Panthers won’t be able to win any more than a couple ACC games this season.
That means that the focus of this season, rightfully, has been how it sets the team up for 2018-19. In addition to the individual improvements, he has a pair of players in Malik Ellison and Ryan Luther that are sitting out this year, one due to transfer and another due to injury. Stallings believes the additions could have a big impact.
“Ryan and Malik Ellison will significantly impact this team in a very positive way and impact it from an experience standpoint,” Stallings said. “They both have multiple years of high-level Division one experience and so we feel like we’ve got a couple guys right here that will impact our team greatly and then obviously, with the maturation of these guys, we think we could be significantly better. I think the players feel that. The coaches certainly feel that.”
The only thing standing in the way of Stallings getting the opportunity to show that improvement could be athletic director Heather Lyke. Lyke did not hire Stallings, having inherited him from her predecessor, Scott Barnes. It’s unclear whether or not Lyke supports the rising tide of Pitt faithful that have called for Stallings’ ouster and Stallings said the the two haven’t had extensive conversations about his future.
“This is probably not a conducive time for a lot of conversations because as coaches, we’re pretty busy and we’re trying to figure out how to help our team win and things like that,” he said. “When there needs to be a conversation, there’ll be a conversation. If I need something I’ll go to them. If they need something, they’ll come to me, but right now what I need is to help my players more and so I spend my waking hours doing the best I can to try to help them.”
Lyke did not respond to a non-specific interview request made by Pittsburgh Sports Now earlier in the season, but did give a statement to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday. She declined to give Stallings a gesture of confidence, saying instead that she preferred to wait until the end of the season to make a public evaluation.
“It would not be supportive or productive for our team’s daily efforts to engage in a public evaluation of the program while the season is still in progress and the second half of our conference schedule still remaining,” Lyke said. “Like each of our 19 sports programs, our men’s basketball program will undergo a thorough review once the season has been completed. At this juncture, our focus is on continuing to support and encourage our young team and coaching staff as they continue through ACC competition.”
The fact that Lyke declined to do a live interview and also declined to publicly support Stallings is probably not a positive sign for his tenure’s future outlook.