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Pitt Basketball Preview: Uncertainty surrounds the program as season opens

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NCAA Basketball: ACC Media Day Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever I talk with Pitt fans, I’m often asked my opinion of where I think the basketball program is headed. Anytime I try to develop a key theme of what I think of the current status of it, the word I undoubtedly end up at is always ‘uncertainty’. Now, a day before the season begins, I’ve still got the same sense. This year? I’m not expecting much. Beyond, though? I still don’t have a great sense of where this is all headed.

Pitt opens the season tomorrow with an exhibition against Slippery Rock. In some past years, the team had played two exhibition games and I wish this was one of those seasons. If there’s any team that could benefit from another ‘practice’ game, it’s this one. For what it’s worth, the Panthers did participate in a not-so-secret scrimmage against Villanova recently. But I can’t help but imagine that another game against a low-level program would help these guys get their footing a bit.

So who are ‘these guys?’ Really good question. Unless you’re the Post-Gazette’s Craig Meyer, who’s been tirelessly getting the jump on everyone when it comes to learning more about Pitt’s newest players, you’re like most and you’ve got no real idea.

Pitt, of course, changed over almost all of its entire roster, which is why virtually all of these players will be new to us. Four players (all starters) graduated and a fifth early graduate, Cam Johnson, had a messy divorce with head coach Kevin Stallings and Pitt before landing in-conference at North Carolina, where he’ll have two years of eligibility. The others transferred, primarily going to smaller programs.

Returnees

The only returnees are senior guard Jonathan Milligan and senior forward Ryan Luther. Both were reserves and even Luther, who played a good bit, missed about 13 of the season due to an injury and is mostly regarded as a role player. That’s no knock on him, obviously, but expecting the kind of jump others have taken when being thrust into the spotlight is just really unfair because he’s, presumably, got less around him. Even if he improves, which he should, he’ll draw the most attention from teams, at least initially until opponents figure out the key players that can do the most damage.

Similarly, I’m certainly not expecting a big year from Milligan. Just because he’s a returning player doesn’t mean he suddenly steps in and becomes a big producer or even starts. Maybe he does initially because of his experience but he’s best served as a three-point weapon off the bench that has the ability to get hot once in a while - not necessarily a starting two-guard.

Finally, there’s Zach Smith, who was a walk-on before earning a scholarship for the second half of last year. He played mostly mop-up duty for Pitt, going scoreless in eight games.

In terms of who’s back, that’s it. So let’s look at the new guys.

D-I Experienced Incoming Players

In his later years with the program, former head coach Jamie Dixon had begun to rely pretty heavily on the transfer market to fill out his roster. With so many open spots after the transfers and graduations, Stallings really had no choice but to do some of that, too. In the end, he added two players that were in D-I last year.

In the backcourt, Pitt brought in guard Malik Ellison from St. John’s. Ellison will have to sit this season but is a valuable guy to have for the future. He was a starter last season, averaging 7.4 ppg, and should be a good addition. Ellison not only has two years of relatively high-level college basketball experience but was a starter and has played a good number of minutes. He’s also the son of ‘Never Nervous’ Pervis Ellison, if you’re into that sort of thing. Ellison was targeted quite a bit and had several offers, picking Pitt reportedly over Maryland, Xavier, and others.

Ellison’s interest from others, though, is an important thing to consider contextually. A lot of Pitt fans were wondering why Cam Johnson drew so much interest from top programs like North Carolina, Kentucky, and Arizona. It’s because more and more coaches are doing what Dixon was doing - and that’s filling out roster spots with proven players rather than add a commit they’re less sure about. The result is that players like Cam and Malik are much more in demand. That doesn’t mean either will be a star. Rather, they’re just considered a better, short-term risk than trying to take a chance on a prospect and potentially tying up a scholarship for four years.

Joining him is Lafayette transfer Monty Boykins. Boykins is actually the team’s most experienced player in terms of games D-I games played with 82 of them. He averaged 10.7 points as a starting junior but missed almost all of last season due to injury. He came to Pitt over Penn State and Duquesne.

Other Experienced Players

Forward Jared Wilson-Frame is one of those guys without D-I experience but some JUCO experience. He led his JUCO team last year with 14.8 ppg leading them to the Final Four of the NJCAA Tournament. He looks like a candidate to be one of the team’s better players this year and next (he has two years of eligibility left). Before going to JUCO, he had some big-time interest from several programs, including UConn and Georgia. He should be a key player for the team and a likely candidate to start, in my mind.

Forward/Center Kene Chukwuka has some experience but is pretty raw with only one year at junior college, playing only about ten minutes a game. He’s originally from Sweden and picked Pitt over several mid-major programs.

Finally, while not freshmen, the team adds two local walk-ons for this season in junior Joe Mascaro (Bethel Park) and sophomore Anthony Starzynski (Baldwin). Neither has D-I experience but both were members of the Pitt Club basketball team in 2017. Mascaro also played briefly in D-III at Case Western Reserve as a freshman.

The Freshmen

Pitt’s biggest group of incoming players are freshmen. Here’s a look at those guys.

No preview would be complete without mentioning the loss of would-be incoming transfer Aaron Thompson. Thompson was one of the top recruits in the class (Rivals has Marcus Carr as the the best while ESPN had Thompson ahead of him) and his departure was a big blow. This team is already playing catch up as it is and losing one of their top incoming players sets them back even more. But let’s focus on the guys who are here.

The biggest incoming player is the aforementioned Carr. Carr is a four-star Rivals and recruit and their No. 101 player overall. He had offers from several D-I programs, including Minnesota, Baylor, Cincinnati, Missouri, Vandy, and Virginia Tech. If you’re looking for a guy that’s the ‘future’ so to speak, it’s probably Carr. He’s a combo guard described as a good two-way player and is probably the key to this class.

Right behind him might be fellow guard Parker Stewart. Stewart is a three-star Rivals recruit but probably has the best offer sheet of all of the incoming players, with reported offers from Georgetown, Georgia Tech, LSU, Butler, Utah, Wisconsin, Ole Miss, and more. He was actually committed to Ole Miss before coming to Pitt. Definitely one to watch.

Another intriguing player is guard/forward Shamiel Stevenson. Stevenson is an athletic player best known (right now, anyway) for his dunking ability. He won a Canadian dunk contest and was also in Pitt’s dunk contest at the outdoor event during Homecoming weekend this fall. Rivals has him as a three-star player and while they don’t credit him with other offers, they show that Indiana, USC, and Arizona State had some interest. At 6’6”, Gilbert Brown is the guy that keeps coming to mind.

Finally, Pitt added another Rivals three-star recruit in forward Terrell Brown. At 6’10”, he checks in as the tallest guy on the team. According to Rivals, Brown held a Purdue offer in addition to the one from the Panthers.

After those guys, other incoming freshmen also include guard Khameron Davis, center Peace Ilegomah, and forward Samson George. None are rated by Rivals but George seems to be the most intriguing here holding numerous offers, including those from USC, VCU, and Rutgers.

In terms of the incoming freshmen, the class would have been significantly better had they been able to hold onto Thompson. There’s some intrigue here but how many develop into top players is the big question. Carr gives the class one guy that is receiving a bit of hype but there’s not much beyond him.

Coaching

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention head coach Kevin Stallings in a preview - particularly one that takes a glimpse at the future beyond this season.

Stallings took a beating last year from fans after failing to reach the NCAA Tournament or even get to .500. That, I believe, was deserved. For the shortcomings that Pitt had, I continue to maintain that it was reasonable to expect more from a team that reached the NCAAs the year prior with practically the same starting lineup.

However, I also believe it’s fair to Stallings to give him a chance to work with his own players. And the reality is that with so many freshmen on the team and new players in general, critiquing him based on only this season would be wholly unfair. Where Stallings needs to show improvement is in Year 3 when the bulk of his team should return.

In addition, my hope is to see less of the public bickering with players that we saw last season and my guess is that we will. Stallings simply cannot afford another season where he is trading barbs with players in the media. While that was bad last year, it would be far worse this season since these are players he brought in himself. Stallings has to know that and that’s why I believe we’ll see less of that.

I’ve been candid in the past that it was not my belief that he was the best hire for Pitt. Heck, I still believe that. But now that he’s here with his own players, he certainly deserves the opportunity to prove himself. And while I thought the team underachieved last year, my hope is that he can get more out of his own players. Expecting that to happen this season, though, is just unrealistic.

Prognosis

In the near future, this just spells a rough season for Pitt. You’d probably feel a bit better about the program if they weren’t in such a difficult league. But playing against the likes of Duke, North Carolina, and the rest of the ACC puts the degree of difficulty off the charts. Perhaps they overachieve a little but I don’t see a best-case scenario beyond like 12-13 wins.

But while this year will probably be a bad one, the thing to stress is that, even though these guys are unknowns, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be good in future seasons. Guys like Ellison and Wilson-Frame give the team some degree of experience beyond this year and intriguing recruits like Carr, Stewart, and Stevenson will have a year under their belts by next season and should be capable D-I players. Many are projects and maybe 1-2 of them pan out. For me, the real sniff test on coach Stallings will come not this season but after next year when we can see if any progress has been made.

Looking ahead, I think it’s imperative for the program to get some more size in for next season. After this year, the Panthers will lose Luther the 6’9” Luther. Ironically, the team’s other bigs are considered the recruits with the most question marks. Brown seems to be the best big man returning next season and he’s an unknown himself. Pitt needs to not only hope that 1-2 of those guys develop but also needs to add more to the pot there to ensure some paint presence beyond this season.

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