SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Perfection is rare in life.
We seek it out. We strive for it. When we come up short, we lament our shortcomings. When we see it, we celebrate it.
Pitt basketball’s 2017-18 season was far from perfect, but the Panthers did accomplish a perverse form of perfection by going 0-18 in Atlantic Coast Conference play by virtue of Wednesday’s 73-56 loss to Notre Dame.
Even though the ACC is probably the toughest conference in the history of college basketball, it’s still not easy to go winless.
It’s happened just seven times in the history of the conference, which was founded in 1953. Clemson did it twice, going 0-9 in 1954 and 1955. Georgia Tech went 0-14 in 1981. Wake Forest went 0-14 in 1986 and Maryland did the same in 1987. Since conference play was expanded first to 16 games and then to 18 games for the 2012-13 season, it’s gotten tougher to run the table the wrong way, but Boston College managed the feat in 2016 before the Panthers made their own history on Wednesday night.
I usually write Five Takeaways after every Pitt football and basketball game that I cover, but such a rare feat calls for something extra. So to celebrate Pitt’s very own version of a perfect season, he’s 18 reasons why Pitt went 0-18 in conference play. The following are in no particular order.
1. Ryan Luther spent the last three months in sweatpants.
I think it’s pretty hard to overstate the impact a player like Luther would have had on a team full of freshmen and first-time Division I players that were all going through the ACC for the very first time.
There’s the on-the-court implications of a player that averaged a double-double in non-conference play and then even more, there’s the value of a team’s experienced leader being on the court. There’s a huge value in a player that’s been there and done that being along for the ride and while Luther still appears to be engaged with the team, it’s just different not having him on the floor.
“I feel confident in saying that if we have Ryan, it doesn’t turn out like this,” head coach Kevin Stallings said on Wednesday. “It just doesn’t. But we don’t have Ryan.”
2. They never got any easy baskets.
Pitt certainly could have used Luther’s size, experience and touch around the rim at times this season. It seemed that every Pitt shot was an adventure at times, even layups from in close. Young big men Kene Chukwuka and Terrell Brown certainly had moments this season when they looked like they could play a little bit, but they didn’t bring anywhere near the touch and feel that’s required to score against veteran post defenders in the ACC.
In addition, Pitt frequently relied on zone defense, meaning they didn’t get out as quickly in transition to score lay-ups that way. The Panthers finished 316th in the country in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom.com.
3. They had at least one long cold stretch of almost every game.
Against Notre Dame, Pitt was trailing by just one point when Marcus Carr hit a layup to bring the score to 14-13 Irish with 11:21 to play in the first half. Pitt didn’t score another point until Shamiel Stevenson hit a free throw with 5:48 remaining. The Panthers didn’t hit a shot until Terrell Brown sunk a short jumper with 5:16 to play.
That’s over six minutes without a field goal, and in that stretch, the Irish rattled off 16 points. Their final margin of victory was 17 points. It was an issue that cropped up in Pitt’s season-opening loss to Navy and carried through all the way to the ACC finale.
“I don’t know that I ever felt like we were getting close to solving it,” Stallings said. “We’re very jump shot dependent.”
4. They never got any offensive rebounds.
For a team that struggled to shoot at times — the Panthers are 332nd in field goal percentage — they certainly had plenty of chances to come down with some offensive rebounds.
They didn’t do that, either, as Pitt managed to someone also be 332nd in offensive rebounds per game. Luther, who hadn’t played since December, was still the team’s leader in that category until Wednesday.
5. They gave up a boatload of them.
Offensive rebounds are like extra lives in a video game. You did something stupid by missing a shot but an offensive rebound gives you another chance to get it right. On made baskets and defensive rebounds, possession changes. On offensive rebounds, the possession extends. The disparity in offensive rebounds is a big reason why Pitt lost, even in games where they out-shot their opponents on a percentage basis.
6. They turned the ball over a ton.
The other way teams pile up extra possessions is by winning in turnover margin, and Pitt was certainly more than willing to help out its opponents. The Panthers are 338th in the nation in turnover margin, with a a negative-3.8 ratio.
7. They didn’t take enough shots.
By allowing not getting rebounds and turning the ball over, Pitt gave up shooting opportunities. In nearly every conference game, the Panthers attempted fewer shots than their opposition, meaning that in order to keep the game close, they had to shoot a higher percentage.
8. They didn’t play much defense.
Pitt relied pretty heavily on a zone the second part of the season, but it didn’t seem to matter much which defense the Panthers played, it was far too easy to score on them. Pitt is 162nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. That’s one of their better marks, but it’s just barely above the midpoint of Division I basketball, and certainly below the line in the ACC.
9. Progress wasn’t uniform.
There’s little doubt that Pitt’s freshmen are better now than they were at the beginning of the season. But each player made progress at a decidedly non-linear rate. Some games, one player would step up; other games, someone else. But rarely all at the same time.
In the finale against Notre Dame, Jared Wilson-Frame was 5 of 13 from 3-point range, but Carr, Jonathan Milligan and Parker Stewart combined to go 0 for 12.
10. They weren’t very deep.
Pitt’s rotation in ACC play essentially consisted of eight players, but offensively, they really only had a couple threats. Wilson-Frame averaged 12.8 points per game in conference play. Parker Stewart averaged 10.8. No one else averaged over 10. Carr (8.3) and Stevenson (7.9) were their next best.
That meant that any time one of those four players had an off night, Pitt didn’t really have much of a chance to win the game.
11. They don’t have any stars.
Most of Pitt’s players are freshmen, and it seems a bit hasty to dismiss the notion outright, but it doesn’t appear that they have a star that is going to be able to take over a game at this level by himself.
Pitt had exactly five 20-point performances in conference play, capped by Wilson-Frame’s third against the Irish. That’s not enough to have the kind of player that a team can lean on to win a game they otherwise shouldn’t have.
12. They got unlucky.
Just like any championship team needs breaks to fall its way, it’s really hard to go winless without having some stuff that rests outside of the team’s control go against it.
Against Notre Dame, Pitt got to be the first ACC team in eight weeks to face all-conference preseason player of the year Bonzie Colson. Colson provided the Irish with a big spark in his return on Senior Day in South Bend.
13. They don’t have any experience.
On Pitt’s Senior Day, the Panthers played their three seniors in the starting lineup and Virginia went on an 8-0 run before Stallings had to call a timeout to make a change.
Pitt only has four of them, one is hurt and the other three are role players at best. Night in and night out in the ACC, Pitt was playing more experienced teams, and that’s a tough road to sled.
14. They had no home-court advantage.
When you go 0-18, you go 0-9 at home and 0-9 on the road. There are a lot of tough places to play in the ACC. Whether it’s the students packed on top of the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium, 20,000 people packed into the Dean Dome or Yum! Center or even shooting against the quirky backdrop of the Carrier Dome, plenty of places in the conference make it tough on the opposition.
This season, the Petersen Events Center wasn’t one of them. Pitt averaged just over 4,000 fans per game, and the legendary Oakland Zoo lost most of its snarl.
That’s not to fault the fans for staying away, but there’s an undeniable advantage to playing at home in front of a full building with a raucous crowd that the Panthers never got to experience this season.
15. Everyone wants the coach fired.
Athletes are great at tunnel vision. They take things one step at a time. They talk about the game in front of them, not the game down the road. They focus on one practice, one shift, one shot before the next.
But they’re also human and it’d be impossible to believe that the winless streak, combined with the public haranguing over Stallings’ future didn’t creep into the minds of the mostly 18- and 19-year old men.
16. Young guys do dumb stuff.
Maybe that’s giving Pitt’s players an out they don’t deserve, but Pitt committed many mental errors during the 2017-18 season. They were the kind of mistakes that if made during the rein of former head coach Jamie Dixon, would have gotten a freshman sent to the far end of the bench for the better part of two weeks.
Of course, that wasn’t an option for this team, so when Stevenson jeopardized his 10-point first half against Notre Dame by committing three fouls, each of them a needless reach, Stallings had little choice but to send him back out there. Stevenson collected his fourth on a charge minutes into the second half and his fifth on another reach without scoring another point.
It’s one thing for a young player to make those mistakes early in the season, it’s another for it to happen in game 31. But there’s also little recourse for Stallings, who doesn’t have an end of the bench to send Stevenson to.
17. They came up small late.
Maybe it’s youth, maybe it’s tired legs, maybe it’s inexperience, maybe there’s some truth to the concept that a team needs to learn how to win.
Whatever the reason, Pitt spent several games in the driver’s seat, only to watch their hopes fade in the last few minutes of the game.
NC State finished on a 7-0 run to beat Pitt by four. Pitt suffered similar fates late in both Syracuse games, against Wake Forest and Virginia Tech. For whatever reason, the end of the game wasn’t friendly to the Panthers, and sometimes in basketball, it just comes down to who has the ball last.
18. Maybe it’s me.
This sounds like a ridiculous proposition, but I’m at least willing to entertain the proposition. Pitt hasn’t had a winning season in conference play since I started covering the team full-time in 2015.
That year was also Milligan’s first with the Panthers. For now, I have an out. But Milligan is a senior.