No clear answer for Pittsburgh: Keep Kevin Stallings or move on?
PITTSBURGH — Kevin Stallings expected growing pains. It’s part of the territory when rebuilding a basketball program on the fly.
Still, the Pittsburgh coach didn’t expect this: the worst season even for a program that dates to Teddy Roosevelt’s second term. An 8-24 record that included a 0-19 finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference. A nosedive in attendance at once raucous Petersen Events Center and the kind of apathy that leave’s Stallings’ prospects of a third season with the Panthers an iffy prospect at best.
“We had to turn over an entire roster,” Stallings said after Pitt’s 67-64 loss to Notre Dame in the opening round of the ACC tournament. “And we knew this was going to be a little bit of a tough season. We didn’t know it was going to be this tough.”
Whatever thin margin for errors the Panthers had disappeared when senior forward Ryan Luther was lost to a foot injury in late December. Forced to play with a group with little experience in perhaps the nation’s toughest conference, Pitt sunk to the bottom.
The program that reached the NCAA tournament 13 times in 15 seasons under former coach Jamie Dixon before he left in the spring of 2016 became just the seventh team in ACC history to go 0-fer in conference play. Pitt averaged just 4,117 fans at The Pete, less than a third of capacity.
Athletic director Heather Lyke stressed repeatedly throughout the year she would wait until the season was over before clarifying Stallings’ status. Stallings, for his part, doesn’t believe he needs to sell the administration on his vision for the program.
“I’m sure comfortable with how we’ve coached this group and how they responded to us,” Stallings said. “How we all held together and supported each other and the one thing I don’t have any question about is they’ve got my back, and I think they know I’ve got theirs.”
A sentiment echoed by freshman guard Parker Stewart.
“He recruited all of us to come here. …We think he deserves a chance. Now he has his players in here,” he said. “Over the next year or two, we’ll continue to improve and show everybody we can have a good team.”
Some things to consider as Lyke weighs whether to keep Stallings:
TALENT GAP: The problem with the Panthers this season was rarely effort. Their tournament loss to Notre Dame offered proof — Pitt rallied from a 12-point deficit to push the Fighting Irish to the limit. The three-point loss was its closest of conference play. It was also a rarity. Only four of their 19 conference games were decided by fewer than 10 points. The Panthers lost eight conference games by at least 20 points.
HIT THE BOOKS: Stallings talked repeatedly about not going for a quick fix after Pitt went 16-17 in his first season. He focused on young players he felt could develop on the court and in the classroom. He wasn’t wrong about the classroom part. The Panthers put five players on the ACC All-Academic team, including freshmen Marcus Carr, Shamiel Stevenson, Kham Davis and Stewart.
STAYING THE COURSE: The only other team in ACC history to go 0-19 was Boston College, during Jim Christian’s second season in 2015-16. The Eagles kept Christian and have slowly improved, going 2-16 in conference play in 2016-17 and 7-11 this season. One major difference between Christian and Stallings? Boston College was a mess when Christian came on board. Pitt was coming off an NCAA appearance when Stallings took over after Jamie Dixon left for TCU.
MOVING ON: One of the biggest sticking points concerning Stallings may be money. Buying him out would cost millions. It’s uncertain whether the Panthers can afford that while footing the bill for a new coach, particularly one with pedigree.