I didn’t want to do this. I really didn’t. But with Pitt’s season-ending loss to Notre Dame this week, I simply couldn’t help but think of all that went wrong with the Panthers’ basketball team.
And, well, it was a long list.
A Bumpy Offseason
Kevin Stallings has mentioned a few times that his group of players last year, while possessing some talent, was not a very coachable bunch. Stallings started by earning the praise of his players for giving them more freedom on offense and that blew up in his face. In the end, he captained a team that missed the NCAA Tournament and essentially wiped the slate clean coming into this year. The entire roster was virtually brand new as several players graduated and most of the rest transferred out.
The lone returnees were Ryan Luther and Jonathan Milligan, whose roles changed drastically. Luther, who had been a sixth man having an up and down year last season before missing games due to an injury, instantly became the best player on the team this year and an automatic starter. Milligan went from barely being used to seeing his minutes doubled while playing nearly 20 minutes a game. Luther, of course, would go on to miss most of the season with a foot injury.
In the end, Stallings mostly got what he wanted coming into the year - a group of players that he realized would endure a tough season but that would listen to him. The player clashes ended and, by most accounts, Stallings and the players seemed to get along fine. Stallings, on more than one occasion, praised the group for their effort and for being the coachable guys he wanted.
But his offseason to start the year wasn’t a great one.
For one thing, he lost his top recruit, guard Aaron Thompson, who was released from his letter of intent. He also lost his top returning player, Cameron Johnson, who transferred to North Carolina despite Pitt’s request that he go out of conference. Those two things helped transform what would have been a down year into one that had the threat of being absolutely terrible.
As if that wasn’t enough, Stallings lost the guy who hired him, athletics director Scott Barnes. Barnes left the school to head west to Oregon State and while his new boss, Heather Lyke, offered some words of encouragement early on, any kind of endorsement never really came. Her comments were more about supporting him and evaluating him instead of a full-on endorsement.
Pitt got off to a ridiculously slow start once the season began. The Panthers dropped their first game on the road to Navy and then were shocked by Montana who beat the team in Pittsburgh. The Navy result wasn’t entirely unexpected but after the loss to Montana, we started getting a feel for just how bad this team could potentially be.
Following a win against UC Santa Barbara, the train came entirely off the track in a 31-point loss to Penn State that truthfully could have been far worse. Stallings knew this would be a bad year but even he was surprised by just how ugly things had become.
“It was a little bit shocking to me,” Stallings said. “I didn’t have our guys ready to play like I thought I did.”
If the Montana game wasn’t an indication this year would be rough, that game and ensuring statement should have been.
Baby Steps ... and Improvement
Pitt went on to lose its next game - another non-conference matchup with a P5 program in Oklahoma State in the consolation game of The Legends Classic. But the Panthers, surprisingly, played much better, keeping things close and losing by only six. By the end of the year, moral victories didn’t mean much but this one did.
The Panthers looked like they were starting to improve because they were. They rattled off four wins in a row and got up over .500. They hit a minor speed bump against a ranked West Virginia team, but after falling behind by a large margin, fought back to respectably lose by only nine. The Panthers won three more games and, at 8-5, had the look of a halfway decent team.
Little did anyone realize, a home win against Towson back on December 22nd would be the last time Pitt won all season.
A Key Injury
Pitt would suffer a big blow just before the conference season as Ryan Luther suffered a foot injury. It was hoped that he could return by the start of the ACC games but that never happened.
In fact, Luther never returned at all.
The Panthers were undoubtedly hurt by his loss. It was going to be a long season regardless and it became that much longer with the news that would eventually come about missing the entire year.
That again caused a shift in responsibilities. Marcus Carr was relied upon even more and Jared Wilson-Frame became the de facto leader of the team. Sometimes he would keep Pitt in games but often, he struggled to find his shot in trying to do too much. Luther’s injury no doubt played a role in turning this from a bad season into a disastrous one.
I’ve believed for some time now that Stallings had no real chance left to plead for his job. If he returned, it would be because Pitt wouldn’t want to pay his buyout, they believed in him, or perhaps some combination thereof. But if I’m Stallings trying to make a case for getting another year, I’m pointing largely to the Luther injury and having such a young team.
Welcome to the ACC
I typically take the Tony Kornheiser stance in that, I’m not sure exactly how much can be gleaned from players in interviews. That’s particularly true of college athletes in high-profile sports where they’re thoroughly coached up and prepped to essentially say nothing stupid.
Not true all the time, obviously. You’ll get a Johnny Manziel, whose popularity makes efforts to reign him in virtually worthless. Sometimes, you’ll get someone to say something kinda careless, like former Pitt receiver Manasseh Garner did. But, like 99% of the time, you ain’t getting much, and that’s by design.
But if I could get honesty from the players, man, I’d love to know where their heads were going into the ACC season. I presume their confidence level was relatively decent and I can’t imagine they thought things would even remotely as bad as they did. But, I’d love to know what they thought would happen once the team got in conference.
Pitt quickly raced out to an 0-7 start in conference play that, looking back, seems like a bit of a blur. They kept things reasonably close against a ranked Miami team, losing by ‘only’ 14 before a blowout loss at Louisville. After a 35-point beatdown by Duke at home, the Panthers dropped the next four.
This stretch was notable, too, because we started to see Stallings begin to unravel. For as bad as the year went, I actually think he mostly held his emotions together. But a few times, that simply became too difficult. One of those occasions was the road loss to Louisville where Stallings yelled at heckling fans (whether they were Pitt fans or Louisville fans has been disputed) about not having to pay his players $100,000, a clear shot at the Cardinals reportedly paying that much to a recruit.
As I said at the time, that was a bad look for Stallings. Not only because he lost his cool, but because he did so in the middle of a game and against fans, who should almost always be patently ignored by coaches in the middle of games. The story spread quickly and, just as was the case of the Johnson situation, Pitt found itself again looking bad in the national news.
A Dwindling Fanbase
Pitt’s attendance numbers were bad all season but, considering the team was playing conference games, got more and more absurd.
The Panthers set and broke their own attendance records a few times this year and crowds were beyond light. Even the already depressing numbers found attached with box scores of games were inflated and in photos of players in games at The Pete, that is evident with crowds that resemble something closer to the ones you used to see for exhibition games when the team was good.
For all of the team’s shortcomings on the court this season, the lack of enthusiasm among the fanbase has to be near the top of reasons for his potential dismissal. That isn’t only because an unenthusiastic fanbase just looks bad. Pitt’s dismal home attendance this season is costing the program money. A lot of it.
Take, for example, the home finale against Virginia. It wasn’t only Senior Day and the last home game of the season, but it was also a game against the No. 1 team in the country. In past years, that would be a sellout or close to it. Announced attendance for that game was about 6,500 and let’s say it’s a game that should draw 10,000 people. Forget the club seats and even simply take the general admission cost of $55 (too high, folks). That’s a lost revenue of $192,500.
And that’s one game.
Pitt didn’t only lose on the court this year. They lost a lot of money as well.
The Panthers didn’t win a conference game but came really, really close.
First, they lost a four-point game to NC State at home. And in the next game, also at home, they dropped a five-point contest to Syracuse. Pitt looked better but with a tough stretch coming up, you started to get the sense that this was a team that very easily could go winless the rest of the way.
I wrote earlier this season that going winless in the ACC seemed like a hard thing to do simply because teams even luck their way into a good performance. But Pitt’s examples of playing over their heads, it turns out, merely meant they just wouldn’t lose quite as bad on some nights.
This team was in way over their heads and while hot nights combined with poor ones from opponents made some games close, ultimately, this was a team that was overmatched every time they took the court in ACC play.
The Bitter End
Pitt came out of those games and was mostly dominated down the stretch. Save for a six-point loss to Wake Forest, who was nearly as bad as the Panthers, Pitt failed to keep any game within single digits the rest of the way in the regular season.
There was a 31-point loss to North Carolina. A 24-point loss to Clemson. A 34-point loss to Louisville. A 23-point (23 points, folks) loss to Boston College. And of course, the epic 29-point loss to Virginia where Pitt set all kinds of modern records by scoring seven points in the first half.
For the record, the Panthers did play respectably against Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament, losing by a mere three points. But for the most part, the end of the year was a complete disaster.
Add it all up and this was some kind of season.