The Pittsburgh basketball group gathers in a resort convention room for his or her pregame breakfast simply after 10:30 on a latest weekday morning in South Florida, serving to themselves to pancakes, bacon, eggs, toast, cereal, yogurt, juice and hash browns.
Players eat quietly earlier than leaving to prepare for shootaround. Assistant coaches and assist workers linger just a little longer, and the dialog turns to 1980s tv and films, and a moderately heated debate over whether or not “Top Gun” is, in truth, a very good film. They fail to attain a consensus.
Eventually, the subject turns to this season. Pitt, as soon as an NCAA match mainstay, is on tempo to end winless in convention play for the primary time ever, and critics throughout Pittsburgh have loudly voiced their displeasure over the place this system is headed. Coach Kevin Stallings has repeatedly praised his gamers each publicly and privately, adamantly insisting, “We will have success here.”
Not too way back, Pitt had a protracted streak of success: Between 2002 and 2016, Pitt missed just one NCAA match. But this system confirmed indicators it had slipped within the closing two seasons below Jamie Dixon, going to the NIT in 2015 and failing to make it out of the NCAA match’s first spherical in 2016.
When Stallings took over final season, he inherited a group full of seniors and with younger gamers not fitted to ACC play. Both he and these inside this system ready for a rocky 2017-18: They had an NCAA-high 11 newcomers, zero returning starters and three whole gamers with NCAA Division I expertise on the roster when camp opened. That isn’t merely rebuilding; that’s beginning over with nothing to construct off.
“It was told to me in the job interview, ‘Hey, listen, this is what you have and this is what you’re up against,'” mentioned Stallings, whose group enters Tuesday evening’s sport in opposition to Boston College at Eight-18 total and Zero-13 within the ACC. The present 13-game shedding streak is a program document.
“I took the job with my eyes wide open. We’ve taken the initial steps that we had to take to get it back on the right path, and that means we’re getting our head bumped a little bit this year, which none of us enjoy, but it’s just going to be a necessary part of it. We could have tried to quick-fix it and make it a better team this year but not have any ability to sustain success. But we took the approach that we’re trying to build it, and build it right and have it last, and that probably made things a little bit worse in the short term, but hopefully it’s going to make things better in the long run.”
Despite the understanding that this season would be tough, the questions on Stallings and this system have solely elevated because the losses have piled up. Patience among the many fan base, not less than, appears to be carrying skinny. Attendance is down precipitously. A group that had persistently averaged 10,000 followers because the Petersen Events Center opened in 2002 has a median attendance of four,154 this season. Players stroll the campus listening to fellow college students criticize their group.
Athletic director Heather Lyke has mentioned she will consider the whole program as soon as the season ends, solely including to the uncertainty. Stallings got here to Pittsburgh believing he would have as a lot time as he wanted to construct Pitt into a real ACC contender. But the athletic director who informed him that, Scott Barnes, is gone, and that has left the Pittsburgh teaching workers in a precarious state of affairs.
They have shielded their gamers from the negativity as a lot as attainable, and Stallings has opted for extra optimistic reinforcement. The method the season began was solely a prelude for what was to come: a gap loss Navy within the Armed Forces Classic, then one other residence loss to Montana. Pitt misplaced by 31 to Penn State and has misplaced its ACC video games by a median of 20 factors. It has misplaced six of these by 24 or extra, together with its previous three. Among probably the most obvious points: Pitt has no bodily presence inside, and its shooters are streaky and inconsistent.
Coaches break down apply and sport tape with gamers and present them classes to take, believing these classes will at some point lead them to these elusive wins. Players don’t hold their heads and sulk. There isn’t any funereal angle to practices and video games regardless of the lopsided outcomes.
They, too, consider they will win at Pitt. But will they get that probability?
Back at breakfast, particular assistant Matt Woodley remembers the time he spent on workers with Tony Bennett at Washington State from 2006 to 2009. Before Bennett grew to become head coach there, he labored below his dad, Dick, and the Cougars had three straight shedding seasons earlier than Tony ultimately took over.
“They used to say this all the time: ‘You’ve got to get a group of guys you can lose with first before you win,'” Woodley mentioned.
Everyone on the desk packs up their baggage and folders and heads downstairs for the bus, the place Stallings and gamers have already boarded. They head north on U.S. Route 1 towards the University of Miami for shootaround. Stallings watches from the scorer’s desk as his gamers undergo warm-ups. This will be his first time teaching within the Watsco Center.
Soon, he and his assistants start to work with their younger gamers, encouraging them as a lot as attainable. Then the true enjoyable occurs: a midcourt taking pictures contest. Everyone traces up to take a flip, and most miss badly. But Jonathan Milligan opts to shoot along with his again to the rim. He launches the ball up, and it goes straight by way of the online. His teammates pile on him and have fun. There are little victories right here, laughs and smiles, too, regardless of the outcomes.
On the way in which again to the resort, Stallings drinks a Diet Dr. Pepper and muses concerning the sport in opposition to Miami. Pitt merely doesn’t match up effectively in opposition to the extra athletic Hurricanes, however he believes his group will play much better than it did of their first assembly, which Miami received 67-53 in December.
Though Stallings knew there would be rising pains, no one ever envisions a winless begin to convention play. On this sunny Miami afternoon, Stallings stays assured in his plan for this system even after consecutive shedding seasons.
To perceive how Pitt bought right here, it is vital to perceive how Stallings bought right here.
“I wanted one more opportunity to build something, to do something,” Stallings mentioned. “I had been at Vanderbilt for 17 years and obviously had gotten very comfortable there, but the lure of the ACC … I was ready for something different. I have tons of energy and tons of enthusiasm for what I do, and people I do it with. That’s why I wanted one more.”
But as quickly as Stallings was introduced as head coach final March, a vicious blowback adopted. Barnes used a search agency whose president employed Stallings again at Vanderbilt and labored with Barnes at Washington. Many locally felt the brand new coach was an uninspired selection to change Dixon, who left for his alma mater, TCU. Dixon led Pitt to 11 NCAA match appearances, together with two Sweet 16s (2004, 2007) and an Elite Eight (2009).
One native columnist wrote Barnes was “out of his mind” with the Stallings hire.
The heat, welcoming environment usually reserved for introductory information conferences turned nasty with the primary query, when a reporter requested Barnes to clue everybody in on what had simply happened, and it solely bought worse from there.
Nine months later, Barnes left Pitt for Oregon State.
The Panthers ended up with a shedding season and out of the NCAA match for the primary time since 2012-13, however what stored Stallings up at evening was making ready for this season. He knew he was about to lose 4 senior starters, and he anticipated gamers to switch.
But there was one factor he didn’t anticipate: Cameron Johnson wished out to go to North Carolina. When Pitt, citing institutional coverage, mentioned Johnson couldn’t switch to an ACC college, Stallings bore the brunt of the backlash. Many native and nationwide media retailers vilified him, calling him petty and vindictive.
Eventually, Pitt relented, however Stallings got here away trying even worse. He repeatedly has mentioned the choice was not his, however the destructive notion continued.
With basically the whole roster turned over and little public assist, Stallings had to put together his inexperienced group to play within the ACC. But shedding isn’t simple, particularly for a fan base with elevated expectations.
The shifting dynamic from the Big East to the ACC has affected Pitt. Before becoming a member of the ACC in 2013, Pitt had 20 or extra wins in 12 straight seasons. In 4 years within the ACC, Pitt has had one 20-win season — and that was in Year 1. Dixon’s closing recruiting lessons did nothing to assist the Panthers construct a basis in a way more tough convention, both.
Still, seeing Pitt on the backside of the ACC standings stays jarring contemplating this system’s previous.
So what subsequent?
That is the query confronting not solely Stallings and his teaching workers however Lyke as effectively. Lyke additionally should take into account the $10 million buyout owed to Stallings if he’s fired. Stallings is requested whether or not quick outcomes are wanted extra in at the moment’s sports activities local weather than when he first went to Vanderbilt.
“Do I think that I’ll have the same kind of time that I had at Vanderbilt? No,” he mentioned. “We had a bad year my fourth year at Vanderbilt, but I was given a fifth year and we went to the Sweet 16, and then we went to the Sweet 16 a couple years later, but I don’t sense that I’ll have that long to produce [at Pittsburgh]. I think I’ll have to produce more quickly than that.”
Stallings has been round lengthy sufficient to know that generally coaches should not given the time they’re promised, and he’s not fully closed off to the extreme scrutiny surrounding him and his program in Pittsburgh.
“You get into this job knowing most people get fired,” Stallings mentioned. “And I can certainly sit here with 100 percent assuredness and tell you better coaches than me have been fired. But I’m going to keep doing the job that I do. I think our players appreciate me, and I think they appreciate our staff. I think they like how they’re treated. I think they like how they’re coached. I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp of how it’s supposed to be done, and whatever else happens happens, because that’s really out of my control.”
So are accidents. The group’s greatest returning participant, Ryan Luther, has been out since mid-December with a stress fracture in his proper foot. During a quiet second within the group resort after shootaround, Luther remembers going by way of exercises in the beginning of the summer season — exercises that featured solely two teammates. Pitt was ready on the remainder to arrive.
“You never want to set limitations and think down that negative path, but I knew it would definitely be tough to get wins, especially in the ACC,” Luther mentioned. “I would have hoped I could have helped a little bit if I were playing, but I knew it was going to be tough.”
He mentioned the message from coaches has been easy: “Don’t be OK with losing. Don’t use that as an excuse, and keep working.”
Stallings mentioned his gamers have finished that, and pointed to shut video games during the last month. Pitt held leads in opposition to NC State and Syracuse earlier than ultimately shedding. Against Miami, Pitt overcame a halftime deficit to take the lead halfway by way of the second half. But Miami outscored the Panthers 25-14 over the ultimate 10 minutes and received. Pitt dropped to Zero-9 within the ACC.
Afterward, Stallings mentioned, “Our team is getting better. We don’t have wins to show for it, and I feel horribly for my guys for that because they’ve been as coachable as any group that I’ve ever had. Hopefully, we keep getting better and we’ll knock one off soon.”
Freshman level guard Marcus Carr stood outdoors the locker room and was requested whether or not it was exhausting to have endurance, contemplating the outcomes. He talked about his brother Duane Notice, who went to a Final Four at South Carolina.
“He came in with seven freshmen. A couple guys did end up leaving, but they kept the core group, and four years later they went to the Final Four,” Carr mentioned. “So I know something like this can happen when guys buy in and have the right attitude and stick their nose in and work hard.”
Pitt will return the majority of its group subsequent season, together with Luther, who anticipates getting a medical hardship waiver. St. John’s switch Malik Ellison is sitting out this season due to NCAA guidelines and will be a beneficial addition when he’s eligible subsequent 12 months.
Stallings, his coaches and gamers see what Pitt can change into. The query is: Does anyone else?