Jim Boeheim had no sooner planted himself at the Petersen Events Center press conference microphone than he’d disgustedly buried half his face into his right hand. And if his points weren’t so powerful, one would have had a hard time making out what he was saying.
“You’re in the ACC, you can’t win with all freshmen. You just can’t,” Syracuse’s legendary coach was observing, this after his short-handed, couldn’t-shoot-straight, couldn’t-defend-in-the-slighest Orange still somehow prevailed over Pitt, 60-55, in an exhibition of basketball so abysmal that it’s rumored James Naismith stormed out at halftime, wooden peach container in tow.
“That’s a tough game,” Boeheim would continue. “It’s hard. I’m telling you, it’s hard. I mean, we’ve got three freshmen, three young guys on our team and … look at what they’re doing.”
Right. Look at Pitt. Or at least what’s left.
Better yet, look and listen to the other guy, who had ample cause to take it all that much harder:
These Panthers, now 8-14 overall and 0-9 in that conference where you can’t win with freshmen, might have just lost their last chance at winning even once. Sure, there’s still Wake Forest, which is 1-7 in the ACC, in the third week of February. And maybe Boston College, now 3-5, could have a bad night the week before.
To boot, a place that was automatically sold out for a solid decade now sees a crowd like this, 7,033, as a bona fide positive. Most of the games aren’t on TV channels anyone can find. Most of the public basketball banter is about the resurgence at Duquesne down the road. And maybe most telling, most of the banter among alumni and other fans here is about the potential future of the program.
Meaning the future beyond Kevin Stallings, not with him.
The overall scene could be seen as unfair, to a very large and very legitimate extent.
For one, to essentially echo Boeheim, it’s pretty much a waste of time trying to win in the ACC with not one, not two, not three, but four — four! — freshmen at the fore. The Panthers have used 15 different starting lineups, most in the entire NCAA, and freshmen have combined to make 68 starts. If not for Jared Wilson-Frame, the junior who put up 18 points on this day, it would be tantamount to fielding a high school team in what Wilson-Frame himself called “the best college conference in the country.”
For another, Stallings lost his one truly established player, Ryan Luther, to a season-ending foot injury before ACC play had begun.
Put bluntly, what’s happening to this group should be happening. They can’t be coached out of it. They just don’t have anywhere near enough talent, experience or togetherness.
I won’t pile on. These are college kids, and young ones at that, and they aren’t even getting paid. But to illustrate two particularly painful points from this latest loss, the second this week in which Pitt had a real chance to crack its conference egg:
It was difficult to discern turnovers from steals with so much sloppiness on this day, but what’s above was a smart steal by Khameron Davis. He’s No. 13 if you didn’t buy a program at the gate. After the steal, he immediately dishes forward to Marcus Carr, then joins him on the break.
Did I mention they’re both freshmen?
Well, I didn’t need to. Because Carr, who had an otherwise uplifting performance with 16 points and 12 assists, inexplicably tried a behind-the-back Kyrie Irving special rather than a routine layup or, better yet, drawing the foul for the hoop-and-harm. Pitt was trailing by just four.
Davis fared no better. Watch him let up in the latter stage of the break, then get caught completely unaware. That’s why, as our photographer Matt Sunday captured, Stallings rightly focused his anger on Davis rather than Carr:
The other particularly painful point might have been more emblematic of the event as a whole:
The game was 40-40 with nine minutes left, but Syracuse went on a 7-0 run and never was threatened after that.
That up there is a play Stallings ran several times against the trademark Boeheim zone, a kick-in to Carr, followed by a kickout to someone else. And it worked, as Stallings offered without prodding, “We had a lot of good looks in this game.” This one had Carr set up Wilson-Frame, who’d produced 13 of Pitt’s first 15 points, only to go as cold as the Panthers’ ticket sales.
That shot, in that moment, needs to fall. And if not that one, then way more than Wilson-Frame shooting 7 of 23 from the field and a mindblowing 3 of 13 from beyond the arc.
“They were falling early,” Wilson-Frame would say of his shots. “They weren’t late.”
Nope. And Boeheim, in his wisdom, clearly had a decent idea that would occur.
“Sometimes you think they’re all going to go when you get hot early, and that was the case for him,” Boeheim said of Wilson-Frame. “Then you just keep shooting.”
Yep. And the zone doesn’t care.
Pitt doesn’t have the talent, experience or togetherness to compete in this conference. Those will show in spurts, but they’ll also sputter.
I asked Carr if maybe collective confidence was lacking, and his answer was candid and firm:
Stallings expressed similar defiance on that count, saying, “Our team continues to grow, continues to get better. We don’t have any wins recently to show for it, but I’m coaching a great group and, hopefully, we’ll knock the door down here soon. Because they deserve it.”
“You should have paid up to keep Jamie Dixon!”
That was shouted, repeatedly, by an orange-clad Syracuse fan standing a few rows up. And although it came with no motive other than malice, the concept alone comes with merit.
Yeah, I know, Jamie wanted to go back to his alma mater TCU. That’s never been in doubt. But I’ve also heard from several boosters that there wasn’t much internal movement to make sure it didn’t happen. And even two years later, that remains deeply disappointing. Those tournament losses hurt terribly every spring. I get that. But I also get that the hardest part of any coach’s challenge at any level isn’t getting over the hump. It’s getting to the hump. And this extraordinary coach, professional and person was doing that as well as anyone in the business.
And to no one’s surprise, he’s making wave upon wave now at TCU. As a junior student there named Wade Schmit told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram this week, “It was a huge deal because Pittsburgh has been a great program forever and everybody was excited to get a guy who knew what he was doing to come back here and change this culture.”
Change can be good. It isn’t always. It hasn’t been for Pitt, to put it mildly.
How very frighteningly far it’s all fallen, right?
I didn’t like the Stallings hire nearly two years ago, though that had more to do with the process and even more to do with the miserable AD at the time, Scott Barnes, who couldn’t have made it clearer he had no interest in sticking with Pitt if he’d bought billboard space atop the Cathedral. It was one mess multiplied by another.
I still haven’t seen cause to believe in Stallings, and that’s actually a safe assessment to make in light of the fact that, hey, none of us has seen that. Not yet.
The question that faces Heather Lyke and the university’s upper hierarchy: How long will this take?
How many more sighs rather than cheers?
How many more long faces walking off the court?
Intangible progress is welcome. As I mentioned above, no one could win with this group, even if Stallings is afforded forgiveness for the failure to compete last season when he still had Mike Young, Jamel Artis and other quality players left behind by Dixon, then the additional failure in fortifying the 2017-18 roster. For a violent contrast on the latter count, look at how quickly Keith Dambrot was able to build up on the Bluff. Dambrot got creative, and he was effective enough that he’s built up not just the current Dukes but also, through a wave of transfers-in-waiting, the next edition as well.
Stallings could get Luther back next season thanks to a medical redshirt, and he’s got a practicing transfer of his own in Malik Ellison, a gifted and athletic guard who’ll start right away. He spoke with understandable eagerness about both Saturday, saying, “They’ll make us better. We’ll be better.”
But how much?
And again, how long will this take?
The Pitt people with whom I spoke at the Pete remain as prideful and passionate as ever. There was no indication at all of any bar having been lowered. They yearn to return to the upper echelon of college hoops, of starting another sellout streak, of drawing national attention to their spectacular arena. They’d love to be able to celebrate stars in the future, just as they feted Charles Smith, Jerome Lane and others introduced to the crowd Saturday at center court in conjunction with wearing those awesome retro jerseys again.
That’s what they want, not to compete with Duquesne. They want to work their way back up.
But how long?
Stallings was asked after this game if he’s had any recent discussions with the Pitt administration about the outlook of the program and how this season’s going. It was a hell of a thing to bring up after a rather routine regular-season loss, but it was also a fair question, and I wish I’d caught who behind me asked it.
“Not really,” Stallings replied, even though another coach might not have. “They let me do my job. We have conversations, of course, but we’re going to continue to go out there and fight every day, practice hard every day and, hopefully, compete on game nights. This is probably not a good time for a lot of conversation because as coaches, we are pretty busy trying to figure out how to help our team win and things like that. When there needs to be a conversation, there will be a conversation.”
Here’s betting it won’t be a comfortable one for all concerned.