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College Basketball: Pitt Preview

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Since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013, the University of Pittsburgh basketball team has no championships to boast, no banners to raise, and no hardware to gloat.

The Panthers have never made it farther than the semifinals of the ACC Tournament or the third round of the NCAA Tournament. In fact, both of those feats were accomplished in the first season in the ACC.

Since then, Pitt has taken steps backwards.

Frankly, the Panthers have taken steps backwards since 2008-09, when they were a Scottie Reynolds’ buzzer beater away from advancing to the Final Four for the first time since 1941. In the seven seasons since the heartbreaking loss to Villanova, Pitt has missed the NCAA Tournament twice and failed to win a postseason game three times in the last four seasons.

However, a new era of Panther basketball begins with a new leader on the sideline. Jamie Dixon, after 13 seasons as Pitt’s head coach, left for the same job at his alma mater, Texas Christian University.

Instead of Dixon or favored former assistant coach Brandin Knight, Kevin Stallings will man the Panther bench this season.

Stallings has been a head coach since 1993. He started at Illinois State and then moved on to Vanderbilt in 1999. In his 22 years of coaching, Stallings has reached the Sweet 16 twice and has a career record of 455-283.

“We’ve hit the ground running as fast as we can,” Stallings said at ACC Media Day. “Some days that feels like a crawl and some days it feels like a sprint, but [I am] really enjoying what’s going on and enjoying the process of trying to put this team together and help them be as competitive as we can be.”

Stallings is tasked with building on the foundation laid by last season’s Pitt basketball team. The Panthers finished ninth in the ACC, were ranked for the first time since 2013-14, and defeated eventual Final Four-bound Syracuse three times.

Regardless, the season ended unfavorably for the Panthers. A loss to North Carolina in the second round of the ACC Tournament was followed eight days later by a loss to Wisconsin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Panthers lost five seniors from one season but only two of them averaged at least 17 minutes per game. One of those two players, point guard James Robinson (10.2 points per game, 5.0 assists per game), will be difficult to replace.

Pitt brings back its top two leading scorers from a year ago. Forward Michael Young (15.7 PPG) and guard/forward Jamel Artis (14.4 PPG) are two of four seniors on the team. The plan is for Artis to start the season at point guard.

“He’s done a great job defensively, offensively,” Young said. “He’s taken care of the ball; he’s done everything we need him to do while also still being aggressive.”

The other seniors are Chris Jones and(6.1 PPG) and Sheldon Jeter (8.1 PPG), who has a history with Stallings dating back to 2012-13.

“I’ve really enjoyed coaching the guys that I have, I inherited all of them, I haven’t recruited a single guy,” Stallings said. “That hasn’t mattered. They’ve accepted me with open arms and I’ve been very grateful for that. I attribute a lot of that to Sheldon Jeter, who played for me for a year at Vanderbilt and convinced his teammates that I was going to be a good guy to play for and a good guy that they would enjoy.”

Despite returning six of its top seven leading scorers from a year ago, Pitt was picked to finish 12th out of 15 teams in the ACC a year after going 9-9 in conference play. It’s the lowest that the Panthers have been projected to finish since joining the ACC in 2013.

“[It’s] a very daunting challenge that any new coach has coming into this league with the quality of coaches and players and teams and programs that exist here,” Stallings said, “but it’s also, I think, the reason that all of us sign up for because of the challenge and its basically the biggest challenge you can have; to come into this league and coach against the guys that are in this league and that have made this league great.” 

Michael Young is the most experienced and most awarded player returning for 2016-17. A year after finishing on the All-ACC Third Team last season, Young made the Preseason All-ACC Second Team. Young led the Panthers in points per game and rebounds per game last season and is Pitt’s active leading scorer with 1,187 points in three seasons.

Though tied as the second tallest player on the Panthers, Young is an athletic forward with a solid shooting touch. Once he gets the ball, Young can drain a jump shot with a defender’s hand in his face or explode off the dribble for an emphatic slam dunk.

Pitt only has two freshmen on its roster, so worrying about how younger players will adjust to college basketball is not a focal point of this season. Regardless, freshman guard Justice Kithcart will be worth keeping an eye on in 2016-17.

At Virginia Episcopal High School, Kithcart was a well-balanced player despite being listed as a guard his senior year. The 6-foot-1’ Kithcart averaged 24.0 points, 7.0 assists, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.0 steals per game. He took Virginia Episcopal to the state championship game and made the first team all-conference, all-state, and all-area teams.

With Robinson gone, Kithcart will have an opportunity to step up as a point guard. Though Artis is the starter, Kithcart could break in as a backup point guard, similar to how Robinson did when he was a freshman.

The Panthers scheduled 13 non-conference games before ACC play starts against Notre Dame on Dec. 31. Until then, Pitt has the typical cupcake games against foes like Eastern Michigan, Gardner-Webb and Morehead State.

The non-conference schedule heats up this season, however, beginning on Nov. 17 when the Panthers travel to Madison Square Garden for the 2K Classic against SMU and either Marquette or Michigan the next day. SMU is 94-39 over the past four seasons and has not lost more than seven games in the last two seasons. Marquette and Michigan are both perennial NCAA Tournament contenders who regularly appear in the national rankings.

Following the trip to New York City, Pitt also gets a challenge on Nov. 29 when they travel to College Park for an ACC/Big Ten Challenge meeting with No. 25 Maryland. The game against the Terrapins will be Pitt’s first challenging road game in a hostile environment, where the Panthers went 3-6 last season.

Other challenging non-conference games include the annual City Game versus Duquesne on Dec. 2, the Never Forget Tribute Classic in Newark against Penn State on Dec. 10 and a home tilt with Marshall Dec. 28.

The Panthers have the talent to finish above their No. 12 preseason ranking, but it depends on how well they will adjust to Stallings. As he stated, none of the players on this team are his and his new system may not be an easy one for an experience-laden Pitt to switch to.

Additionally, Stallings first Panthers team drew the short straw when it comes to their conference schedule. Pitt's four double-opponents are No. 6 North Carolina, No. 8 Virginia, No. 13 Louisville and No. 19 Syracuse.

With four talented seniors buying in to the new coach's ststem, the Panthers may have a shot to make the NCAA Tournament. But going deep in it or winning the ACC Tournament is a long shot.

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