NEW YORK — When it came to the 2017-18 season, Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings and the men’s basketball team were always going to be evaluated on their progress and the development of the team’s nine first-time Division I players than they were going to be evaluated on their record.
Pitt’s loss to Notre Dame at Tuesday in the first round of the ACC Tournament ended the Panthers’ run without a win in 19 tries against ACC competition and without a win in 22 games played against power conference foes. Pitt’s best win was probably against Duquesne, which is the No. 10 seed in the Atlantic-10 tournament.
So clearly, the winning didn’t go Pitt’s way. But improvement? Well that’s in the eye of the beholder. Pitt lost its final 19 games, and they weren’t consistently more competitive down the stretch. The Panthers did play one of their best games of the season in Brooklyn against Notre Dame.
It’s a mixed bag, and maybe that’s to be expected with so much youth. Even players that are unquestionably better than they were at the beginning of the season were inconsistent at times. Terrell Brown and Parker Stewart come to mind quickly.
Brown looked completely lost at the beginning of the season, and spent the stretch run carving out a decent niche as a post scorer on a team that badly needed one. Stewart couldn’t shoot to save his life in non-conference play before emerging as one of the ACC’s best freshman shooters, trailing only Duke’s Gary Trent, Jr. in 3-point field goals per game.
But against the Irish, Stewart went cold in the first half and Brown got himself into foul trouble as Pitt came one shot short of an upset victory.
There’s clearly been improvement, but has there been enough improvement? That’s a tougher question.
WHAT THEY SAY
Of course, there’s a pretty clear source on the improvements of the Pitt players — the Pitt players. Here’s what they had to say around the locker room at Barclays Center on how they and the team are better than the start of the season.
“I think I’ve grown quite a bit in the areas of decision making, the mental game, things like that. At this level,” forward Shamiel Stevenson said. “It’s a lot different from high school. It’s a lot faster. The reads are like that. You’ve got to make quick decisions. I think I got a lot better at that over the course of the year.”
“If you look at us at the beginning of the season, the middle and then now, we were always improving,” forward Kene Chukwuka said. “We’re a young group. We counted on seven freshmen; a bunch of newcomers, and then we lose Ryan (Luther), too. There was a lot of big minutes to be played by all of us that’s new to this college game. We’re improving every game. We just played them. We’re learning from the mistakes.”
“Form our first game of the year to now, we’re a completely different team,” Stewart said. “Even though our record in the ACC doesn’t show it, we know as a team, how far we’ve come this year. … I think everybody is ready to kind of show everybody what we can have here and every one sticks together, we think we can have something good here the next couple of years.”
“Especially for it being (the young players’) first time playing in the ACC, which in my opinion is the best conference in college basketball, for them to come out and compete like that on this stage against a caliber of team like that, I think it says a lot,” said guard Jonathan Milligan.
PLAYING FOR STALLINGS
The mood in the locker room seemed to be that the players would like their head coach to return. Brown was the most outspoken and as he went on about what Stallings has meant to this group, the room filled with nods.
“We all believe in Coach Stallings,” Brown said. “He recruited all of us. He personally came to all of us. We were all freshmen. He came to us and we put our trust in him. We’re not really worried about (the losses). Next year, it’s going to be a good team. We’ve got Ryan Luther and Malik Ellison along with the guys here. Right now, we’re sophomores. We’re not freshmen. … We got the experience, so next year, I feel like we’ll be able to do something in the ACC.”
SECOND TIME AROUND
Everything Pitt did this year, it was the first time most of the players did it. Every building they went into, it was the first time shooting there. Every opponent, it was the first time seeing them. Every referee, it was the first time adjusting to his standard. It was also their first ACC Tournament, but it was their second trip to Barclays Center in Brooklyn and third game in the NBA venue.
Pitt had one of its worst performances back in November against Penn State in that building. After the game, they thought maybe the big arena and big stage was in their heads a bit.
“This whole year has been a learning process for us,” Davis said. “Playing here before, we learned how it’s going to be on a stage like this. So, I think coming in today, it was normal for us. We just came in prepared to play. “
A week ago, Pitt went into South Bend, Indiana and got rocked by Notre Dame, losing by 16 points.
“We had all the faith in the world we were going to win this game,” Milligan said. “We’ve been talking about it since we played them last time. We were like ‘we can get these guys.’ It hurts, but the future is bright for these guys.”
PLAYING FOR EACH OTHER
If Stallings does indeed leave, or maybe even if he doesn’t, there’s been speculation that not all of this group will be back. But it does seem that the core of the team are genuinely excited to be playing with each other at Pitt.
“Everybody’s close to everybody,” Stevenson said. “There’s no groups or anything. Everybody likes everybody. We just click.”