Syracuse is a 17 point favorite as they look to avoid a 5 game ACC losing streak while Pitt’s just trying to drag someone down into the ACC basement with them. To preview the matchup we caught up with Mike Wilson over at Cardiac Hill.
TNIAAM: So first, what in the actual (expletive) happened to Pitt in the offseason?
Mike Wilson: Well, Kevin Stallings’ first season as head coach was turbulent to say the least. Despite inheriting some talented players, he wasn’t able to get the most out of them, and that issue got progressively worse as the season dragged on. Pitt completely fell apart in conference play, and that led to the wheels falling off for the program in the offseason.
Pitt already had several players set to graduate, including top scorers Mike Young and Jamel Artis. But it seems like Stallings’ antics, which included throwing the team under the bus after a historic loss to Louisville last season, convinced a lot of players to transfer out in the offseason. So instead of returning Cameron Johnson, who ranked third on the team in scoring last season, Pitt ended up having to replace a foundational player and five more who left the program voluntarily in addition to replacing four who graduated and Justice Kithcart, who was dismissed for an unspecified conduct issue.
All told, Pitt lost 11 of its 14 players from last season, and the majority of the replacements Stallings brought in were freshmen. Now, that inexperience is showing on the court.
TNIAAM: Pitt is off to an 0-5 start in conference, is there any hope to win a game this year in the ACC?
MW: Yes, there is hope, albeit tremendously faint, that Pitt can win a conference game this year. Wake Forest is on the schedule, and the Deacons have dropped games to Drake and Liberty this season and had to eke out a four-point win over Coastal Carolina. They also have Notre Dame on their schedule after Pitt, so there’s a chance the Panthers could catch Wake Forest looking past them and take advantage of that — especially at home and toward the end of the season, when they’ve had a chance to jell more as a team.
Another team that will face Pitt under similar circumstances is Boston College. The Eagles seem like a stronger team than the Deacons. They also have a win over Duke on their resume, so Pitt certainly won’t be heading into the matchup expecting to win. But they’ve also played subpar teams like Richmond and Wake Forest close and have been somewhat inconsistent. The odds are against it, but if everything goes right, there’s a chance Pitt escapes with a win there.
Beyond that, there aren’t many realistic opportunities for a win. But they play the games for a reason, so we’ll see.
TNIAAM: If so, that win is coming against Syracuse, isn’t it?
MW: Well, both teams are riding losing streaks into Tuesday night’s game, but the Panthers’ streak unfortunately seems more likely to live on. They have a slightly better shot at getting a win at the Pete on Jan. 27, but that seems pretty far-fetched, too.
TNIAAM: As if things couldn’t get worse, four year Pitt player Ryan Luther went down with a season ending injury. What has he meant to Pitt and how does this hurt?
Ryan Luther has meant everything to Pitt as a leader. Before he went down with his injury, he was averaging a double-double in his first season as the focal point of the team, and more importantly, Pitt had a chance to win when he was on the court. With him on the floor, Pitt soundly defeated Duquesne on Dec. 1 and held its own against West Virginia on Dec. 9. Without him, Delaware State was within two points of Pitt with about 20 seconds left in the game on Dec. 19. That’s the difference he makes.
Aside from his play on the court, he’s also an example for the freshmen around him to follow. He came in as a local three-star recruit under Jamie Dixon, stayed despite the coaching change, stayed despite the offseason upheaval and rose to the occasion when he got his chance to play. Pitt’s freshmen are all former three-star recruits who Stallings wants to get more out of, and he can point to Luther as proof that their work will pay off.
Losing Luther certainly hurts Pitt in the short term. This season seems like it’s probably a lost cause without him. But even with him in the lineup, Sports Illustrated only expected Pitt to win two conference games, and that didn’t seem unrealistic. So we may only be talking about a one- or two-win difference with him on the sidelines. Meanwhile, his absence gives Pitt’s freshmen more time on the court, which should help them adjust to playing at the college level and benefit them next year. And we probably haven’t seen the last of Luther, since he applied for a medical hardship waiver and should get it, according to NCAA rules.
TNIAAM: How did the whole Kevin Stallings situation unfold when he threw shade at Louisville for paying their players?
MW: Basically, the Pitt bench was getting heckled by fans in Louisville, and details about what the fans said or how often they heckled them were not shared at the time. But Stallings responded by shouting back, “At least we didn’t pay our kids $100,000.”
After the game, he stood by his comments, saying his players were being heckled and he was defending them. As far as the fanbase’s reaction, it’s been mixed. Some considered it an embarrassment. Others, who apparently took his explanation at face value, thought he was in the right and seemed to find it endearing.
TNIAAM: What’s more likely, seeing God or Stallings earning a third season at Pitt?
MW: Stallings earning a third season at Pitt, surprisingly. I mean, you would think his seat would be plenty hot, but somehow that doesn’t seem to be the case at this point.
He branded this season as his “second first year” because of the offseason exodus, which he seemingly sparked, and the rebuild that ensued, and it seems like a lot of people have accepted that explanation and are calling for patience as the players develop.
With that said, Pitt’s dead in the water and attendance has reached record lows, so Stallings’ seat may well get hotter as the season progresses. But a shakeup doesn’t seem imminent just yet.
TNIAAM: Any inklings on who might take over the next term as head coach? Too soon?
MW:It’s probably too soon to say, since a new hire at Pitt may be further down the road than people think, but there are a few candidates who make sense.
One person who was notably overlooked last time around was Brandin Knight. He played for Pitt, worked as an assistant under Dixon and got Dixon’s endorsement for the job before he left for TCU. Although he lacks collegiate head coaching experience, he was part of a Pitt staff that was consistently successful before moving on to become an assistant at Rutgers, which is suddenly competitive. Some feel he’s owed a shot at the job, but after the way he was snubbed by former athletic director Scott Barnes, it’s not a lock that he would take it if offered.
Another available coach who’s done impressive work and has ties to Pitt is Tom Crean, who was an assistant under Ralph Willard in the mid-1990s. Crean’s negligible connection to Pitt isn’t as significant as the timing of his unemployment and Pitt’s imminent need for a solid hire. What could make him appealing to Pitt and its fanbase is the fact that his head coaching experience came at one school largely on par with Pitt and one clearly above Pitt in terms of pedigree. After hiring a guy away from a middling Vanderbilt program, that seems important. Crean also logged 20-win seasons in four of his last six years at Indiana and reached the Final Four with Marquette. For comparison, Stallings had one 20-win season in his last four before coming to Pitt. It also works for Crean because he may not get a shot with another blue blood program if he returns to coaching, so a school like Pitt, which is in the Power Five and has proven capable of gaining national relevance in the not-so-distant past, might fit for him.
Two other names that were floated last time that still make sense for Pitt are Kevin Willard and Andy Toole. Willard is the son of Crean’s former boss at Pitt, and Pitt also happens to be his alma mater. So his connection to the school is deeper than Crean’s. At this point, he’s closing in on his third consecutive 20-win season at Seton Hall, which is currently tied for first in the Big East. So he’d be a quality hire. With that said, Seton Hall isn’t Kansas, but you have to wonder why he’d give up a good situation there to come back to Pittsburgh. Then again, Dixon left to resurrect his alma mater’s basketball program, so it happens from time to time.
Toole was mentioned as an up-and-coming mid-major coach who could potentially replace Dixon last time around because of the work he did across town at Robert Morris, and he’s got the Colonials leading the Northeastern Conference again this season. With that said, Pitt is a big step up from Robert Morris, and if athletic director Heather Lyke decides to make a change, she’ll probably be looking for a higher-profile hire in an attempt to avoid another Stallings-like bust.
TNIAAM: Okay, so what can we expect Pitt to try to do against the zone?
MW: That’s tough to say with Pitt. Without Luther, inside scoring and rebounding are going to be challenging. On top of that, Pitt struggles with ball security, and that issue will be exacerbated by Syracuse, which ranks 25th in the nation in steals per game. So while Stallings will draw up plays that should set up high-percentage shots, it’s hard to say how well they’ll be executed.
Marcus Carr leads Pitt in both assists and turnovers, so the team’s greatest weapon against the zone could also be its Achilles’ heel. With that said, Tuesday night might be a good time to see the ball in Parker Stewart’s hands more often. He’s the only Pitt player averaging more than 20 minutes a game and less than one turnover per game. So he can be trusted to take care of the ball, which will be important.
Stewart and Carr also happen to be two of Pitt’s best three-point shooters, and against Syracuse, they’ll probably be relied upon more than usual to come up with points from beyond the arc. Khameron Davis actually leads the team in three-point shooting percentage but has been used sparingly in the last two games. That should probably change against Syracuse. In addition to leading the team in three-point shooting percentage, Davis is one of the team’s leaders in field-goal percentage. So it would be in Pitt’s best interest to turn to him more often than Jared Wilson-Frame, who leads the team in scoring but has shot 19 percent from three-point range and 32 percent overall since the start of ACC play. Considering the Orange seem likely to outrebound Pitt, limiting their opportunities to do so seems like a step in the right direction.
TNIAAM: Lastly, who wins, what’s the final score and why?
MW: Syracuse wins 74-52.
Stallings hasn’t eased up on his use of Wilson-Frame all season, and he probably won’t start against Syracuse. That’ll likely lead to missed shots, which will lead to rebounds and scoring opportunities for the Orange. On top of that, turnovers are almost certain to be an issue for the Panthers on Tuesday, as they rank 286th in the NCAA in turnovers per game, with 14.9 on average. A lot of that comes from Carr, Wilson-Frame and Shamiel Stevenson, none of whom have gone a game without multiple turnovers since Dec. 19. Pair that detail with Syracuse’s knack for taking the ball away, and Pitt’s in trouble.
In terms of the score, Pitt is averaging just 55 points per game in conference play, and it’s unlikely they’ll have a breakout offensive performance while missing their best player and facing a defense that seems well equipped to take advantage of their weaknesses. Meanwhile, Syracuse will take the points they’re given, as demonstrated against Florida State, and Pitt has been giving up upward of 70 a game.
Thanks to Mike for taking part in this preview. Hopefully the team breaking the losing streak tonight is the Orange because we don’t want to think about the alternative.