January 23, 2017

Fun and Losing Rarely Work

Filed under: Basketball,Fishwrap,Media — Chas @ 9:38 pm

In a way, this 4-game losing streak couldn’t have come at a better time for Pitt. In the midst of the Steelers playoff run. Heck, Pitt probably has another week of being mostly ignored while the venting and recriminations continue.


That’s the way the Pittsburgh media decided to describe Pitt basketball in the first year under Kevin Stallings.

Here’s Kevin Gorman of the Trib right after the Notre Dame game.

Despite his success, fans had grown tired of Jamie Dixon’s stifling style of coaching. They wanted something more entertaining, something less focused on defense and rebounding.

They got that with Stallings, who loosened the reins. The Panthers have been given the green light to shoot 3s, the freedom to play at a fast tempo and have scored 80 points or more seven times.

I have to jump in here, because once more, scoring points has nothing to do with tempo. Pitt is an offensively efficient team. They score on their possessions, and don’t commit as many turnovers

They may be playing at a faster tempo than last year, but they are in the 200s out of 351 teams nationally in terms of tempo. College basketball itself has attempted to up the overall tempo with a shorter shot clock and allowing more freedom of movement. There is no doubt that Pitt basketball is playing at a faster tempo, but the pace is hardly a tremendous jump.

Last year the average adjusted tempo of Pitt was 66.1 (309th nationally with the average adjT of 69.0 for D-1 teams).  This year, Pitt is up to 68.0 (229th nationally with the average adjT being 69.1).

Sorry, finish this.

Stallings hoped Pitt would have a “mature, motivated response” when Virginia visits Wednesday.

“I don’t think that you have any time to wallow in your boo boos,” Stallings said. “You have to get up and be a man and say, ‘What can I do better?’ And get ready for the next one, because there’s 17 more just like that one that are going to come flying at us — and none of them are going to be easy.”

As Stallings learned in his ACC debut, nothing is going to come easy for Pitt. But the Panthers showed promise that, with progress, they could be fun to follow.

There’s the word. “Fun.”

And Pitt had a great response to the loss by beating Virginia in the next game. Prompting a gem from Paul Zeise. Time for the deep dive.

For years, one of the chief complaints about Pitt under Jamie Dixon was that its style of basketball was not fun, not exciting and far too micromanaged. Fans wanted more offense and a faster tempo, which would give the Panthers a better chance to advance deep into the NCAA tournament and attract the top players in the country.

I find this amusing, because, yes there were complaints about Dixon and style of play. But most of that came after the team was not winning the way it was in the first half of his time at Pitt. The exception being the writer of this column. I like Zeise, but he has long been one of the biggest critics of Dixon’s style of play more than anything else. Specifically, the very things he cites in his opening graf. It’s a bit disingenuous to make it seem like the complaints were coming from others — and not him.

If all of that is true, this should be the greatest era of Pitt basketball because Kevin Stallings already has delivered on that front.

Oh, boy….

If you want to tell me Stallings wasn’t an inspired hire, isn’t a better coach than Dixon or you didn’t like the way Dixon was pushed out the door, I don’t know that I agree, but I might listen to some of that. But nobody can deny that Pitt is now really fun to watch, and that, given the personalities of this senior class, Stallings is a much better fit than Dixon was.

A much easier graf to try and push when Pitt was 12-3 and 1-1 in the ACC. Now, with a 4-game losing streak that included a blowout home loss to Miami. A team that practically refused to take a game that NC State wanted to give away — because Pitt no longer does the one thing Dixon pushed: rebounds… Feels like a tougher sell. Stallings may “fit” this team’s personalities more, but is that going to get more wins and/or accomplish more?

Dixon spent the past two years struggling with these players, trying to make them value defense more than they do and trying to get them to buy into his structured offense. That plan worked well with many of his previous teams, but not this group. These players are a bit free-spirited and offensive-minded, and it was a constant butting of heads between players and coach. By the end of each of the past two seasons, it didn’t seem like anyone was really having any fun. Stallings came in and recognized the players’ personality immediately and has given them a green light — and they have, in turn, responded with a 12-3 record, in good position for an NCAA tournament bid.

And followed that up with 4 straight losses. Life comes at you fast.

Stallings told his team at the start he’d give them the freedom to play offense the way they liked as long as they work with him and buy in on some other areas, and it appears as if that’s exactly what happened. This group will never be great defensively, but it at least now has some periods where it looks lucid on that side of the court. Stallings mixes his defenses up enough to keep other teams off-balance at times.

I will give Stallings plenty of credit for getting creative and inventive with the shifting defenses. And when the team actually tries at that end, it doesn’t look bad. But to even think that this team has bought into or worked on the defensive side is ridiculous.

And as, I have been drafting this one for a couple days, Kevin Stallings obliged me with his media session today.

“Right now, my assessment is the only thing it feels like they’ve bought into 100 percent is freedom on offense,” Stallings said Monday. “Well, anybody could buy into that. That’s not a hard thing to buy into. That’s just human nature. Of course I would like to have freedom on offense. I haven’t gotten them to buy into the way we have to play defensively. I haven’t gotten them to buy into the way we need to communicate, the way we need to support each other, the way we have to fight when adversity hits. I haven’t been able to get them to do a number of other things yet the way they have to be done with what we have, with the makeup of our team in this league. That part has been a little frustrating.”

Different “f-” word from Coach Stallings.

By the way, this is why the local media, especially guys doing a lot more radio, are happy to have Kevin Stallings as the coach. He’s very candid. Very open about things.

If you are in the media, Jamie Dixon was as vanilla as they came. Even in recent years when he had relaxed more with the media, he still hewed to certain talking points. Rarely ever being negative about the players or what was happening. At times, getting defensive.

Stallings hasn’t done any more or less media than Dixon did. He has just been a much more *ahem* fun interview subject.

Pitt has two players — Mike Young and Jamel Artis — who can combine for 45 to 50 points on any given night, meaning the Panthers have a chance to win on pretty much any given night. Both occasionally take shots that give even Stallings indigestion, but he understands he has to live with some bad shots because Young and Artis are capable of hitting them. Those two are surrounded by four others — Ryan Luther, Sheldon Jeter, Cam Johnson and Chris Jones — who can hit shots and, more importantly, also have a green light to shoot when they’re open. That makes them really tough to guard.

And once more, Pitt can score with anyone. But they have yet to show they can defend anyone.

I understand why there have been some awful crowds this year. I understand why there is a backlash among a certain segment of fans who are still loyal to Dixon and why some people have taken a wait and see approach. Now that people have seen this team play, I suspect we will start to see bigger crowds again and a better atmosphere at Petersen Events Center. If we don’t, I’m not sure what people want because Stallings has delivered a fun brand of offensive basketball and has the right players to pull it off.

Wins. Wins help a lot more than a “fun” style.

I don’t think there is any backlash by fans loyal to Jamie Dixon with regards to attendance. It has a lot more to do with diminished expectations. Pitt is like just about any other program. People show up when the team wins. When they are struggling, it is much easier to skip the game.

Pitt has struggled in the last couple years compared to what the program had been doing. No surprise, that that was when the attendance started dropping and grumbling about style of play,

Wednesday night was the first time this season that Petersen Events Center felt like the good old days, with a large and rowdy crowd watching Pitt score 88 points against the best defensive team in the country, Virginia. But the arena still wasn’t full and the box office was still trying to sell tickets to it right up until tip-off.

“The good old days?” Like last year?

Make no mistake, Virginia had no answer for Pitt’s offense. The Panthers spread the Cavaliers out and scored in so many ways that their vaunted pack-line defense was rendered useless. Dixon never beat Virginia, and one reason was he tried to beat the Cavaliers at their own game, grinding out possessions. That approach is a recipe for disaster.

But Dixon sure could beat Syracuse.

And those Virginia teams were arguably better teams. I don’t really know where to begin. If all it took to beat Virginia was to space the court better, I think more teams would have better success. Pitt had an ungodly good shooting night from outside against Virginia. 13-21 on 3s. That had a lot more to do with scoring and being able to open up the court than the actual strategy. Hitting the damn shots makes any strategy look smart.

Pitt will do what it did last night to a lot of teams, not just because they have a lot of guys who can shoot but because they are all allowed to shoot. That freedom breeds confidence. Stallings said as much after the game last night when he was asked about Jeter taking two 3s to open the overtime: “He could miss 18 in a row and I’d tell him to keep shooting them because I know he can make them.”

Or, that could have been the high point. I have and still maintain that Pitt can beat anyone and lose to anyone in the ACC this year. Not because of the “freedom” and “fun” of the offense. But because their effort for 40 minutes on both ends of the ball has been inconsistent as hell.

I don’t know where this team is headed, how good they can become or where they will finish in the ACC. Only time will tell us the answers to those questions.

Way to hedge after declaring “Pitt will do what it did to [Virginia] to a lot of teams.”

What I do know is that the Panthers play an exciting brand of basketball and are a really fun team to watch right now. That’s something I’m not sure I’d ever say given the style they had played for almost two decades.

Yes, that dark and dismal time period for Pitt men’s basketball — that was previously referred to as “the good old days.” Why, oh, why did people show up to the Pete at all?

Oh, yeah. The winning.

I have heard and read local media when talking about Pitt basketball, speak glowingly — at least up until the last 2 weeks — about the style of play. About “fun.” As if that will be the panacea for all that ails.

*Pitt’s recruiting has been weak: fun style of play and freedom to shoot will bring the kids.

*Attendance dropping: fun and free flowing offense.

*Players unhappy: fun and open system.

Bull. It’s about the wins. Everything else is window dressing. 10 of the top 40 teams in KenPom have adjT in the top 100. 13 teams have adjT in bottom 100. Aesthetics only matter when you aren’t winning.

I guess that’s why this emphasis on “fun” bugs me. It just seems like a cover being offered for a team that isn’t that good. And honestly, it probably hurts Stallings in the long-run more than it helps him with the fans when that is the focus.

Instead of trying to talk about the issues with recruiting. The real deficiencies on the team, you get a sideshow talk about the way the team plays. Even if it is the media talking about it, it gets imputed to Stallings.

Stallings has very shallow support from the general fanbase. Perceiving him as just a guy who plays “fun” but not to win will get him no where.

I wasn’t wild about Stallings hire. I accept it, and want him to do well, simply because I root for Pitt. Being constantly negative and seemingly hoping for his failure because it wasn’t the ideal choice is a miserable way to be.

I’ve said from before Stallings was even hired, that things (especially next year) will get worse before they have a chance to get better. We’ve seen how poorly abruptly shifting coaches every year or two can be for football.

As much as things can change quickly for a program with the right hire and a couple good recruits, it can get just as even worse much faster when there is constant churn with the coach and recruiting.

Forget the fun, just find the wins.

Hard to be uptempo without a point guard.

Comment by alcofan 01.23.17 @ 10:33 pm

Dixon’s magic wearing off fast at tcu.

Comment by Steve 01.23.17 @ 11:10 pm

With all of this talk of uptempo and freedom, the one thing that Dixon’s team were certainly better at was rebounding … especially on the offensive end.

Vs NC St … Pitt was leading 69-62 with under 8 minutes, when NC St with the help of 3 straight offensive rebounds, scored. Pitt would only get 1 more FG the rest of the game …. a putback by Jones, which was the ONLY offensive rebound Pitt got in the final 8 minutes.

It Pitt is going to go thru these cold shooting spells (like they have in the past handful of games), they need to take care of the ball, defend and REBOUND

Comment by wbb 01.24.17 @ 8:07 am

wbb – Historically, going way back, you’re right, you could always count on Dixon’s team to rebound, however several years ago, beginning with Zanna (forced to play Center because we didn’t have one), Dixon’s teams average to far below average rebounding teams. We’ve lacked size and toughness, we lost our identity long before Dixon left. It looked like Dixon tried to will his teams to rebounding success, but without the personnel or character. It just so happens that this team (also playing without a center) is the worst example of this trend, but trouble had been brewing for years. All stemming from our inability to recruit.

Comment by 1618mt 01.24.17 @ 8:17 am

Steve, Yes, TCU is starting to find it rough in the B12, but they are 14 and 6 overall, 3-5 in B12. This may not seem impressive but last year they were 12-21 overall and 2 and 16 in B12. The year before, they were 4 and 14 in B12.

The last 3 games they played, all losses, was at Tx Tech (who Pitt lost to earlier), vs #1 Baylor and at Ok State. Pitt would most likely also go 0 and 3.

TCU last appeared in NCAA in 1998 and in NIT was 2005. You get the drift?

Comment by wbb 01.24.17 @ 8:19 am

1618MT, agree. IMO, Dixon’s failure to procure a legit center over the past few seasons was the No. 1 reason for his departure at Pitt.

Comment by wbb 01.24.17 @ 8:22 am

wbb – I should clarify; not recruiting a Center was a huge problem (with the exception of Adams’ 1 year), but even the PF’s and surrounding cast lacked toughness across-the-board for quite a few years now. You can’t coach someone to have toughness/physicality, you have to recruit that.

Comment by 1618mt 01.24.17 @ 8:53 am

@Chas Thanks for writing the follow-up piece that Zeise himself didn’t have the courage to do. Zeise with the “journalist” facade of “some people are saying” as if he’s representing only the reader’s perspective.

In the same vein Zeise also tweeted, I believe, just prior to the Miami loss that Pitt was right where he thought they’d be. Zeise had been saying since November that Pitt would finish in the top half of the ACC. Paul the Pumper.

Pitt didn’t have a true center for Zanna’s senior year because Adams (2012 class) left for the NBA after one year. Birch, from the 2011 class, left for UNLV. Gilbert, from the 2011 class, left for Fairfield after his redshirt season. Young arrived in 2013. I’m not sure what qualifies as a center, but I contend that Pitt hasn’t really had traditional centers other than Gray, McGhee and Adams. 6’4″ Jaron Brown was Pitt’s leading rebounder in 2002 and 2003.

IMO Dixon’s “recruiting failures” were in retaining the guys that he brought in and successfully replacing it with the transfers that he brought in. The 2011 recruiting class a near total write-off that hurt Pitt terribly. 2010 not much better.

Totally agree about the toughness aspect of the team and that Dixon seemed to try to instill it but failed. Seems like when Dixon started having some success with more offensively skilled athletes that some of the toughness and desire wasn’t there.

@wbb you may be confusing TT with SMU. SMU is the one common opponent of Pitt and TCU this season. TCU has been competitive in every loss this season. In some games the opponent has pulled away late (e.g. OSU in Stillwater). TCU is a fairly poor shooting team this season.

Comment by Barvo 01.24.17 @ 9:29 am

Here’s what I have a very difficult time understanding. This team has four senior starters. Do they really want to end their careers by missing the tournament? That is what is going to happen if they continue to have these lapses of 10-15 minutes without scoring and still not playing solid defense. It would be a shame for Young and Artis to go out that way, but it appears that is exactly what is going to happen.

Comment by longsufferingpittfan 01.24.17 @ 10:30 am

Pitt is essentially rebuilding so it’s gonna be a couple of years. No quick fixes because we’re not Kentucky, UNC, DUKE, etc. The struggles Stallings is having are nothing new with this current group. This is a very hard year to judge Stallings on. Like Chas, I wasn’t a fan of the hire. Like Chas, I’m going to give him a shot with the realization it might be 3 years before we see the returns. I’m not accepting mediocrity, I’m accepting reality.

Comment by Tossing Thabeets 01.24.17 @ 3:34 pm

I want Stallings to succeed. But this team looks poorly coached — at times it’s undisciplined playground ball. And the coach throwing the team under the bus — it’s a bit much. Here’s hoping his next 2 seasons are better than this, and that we aren’t witnessing the beginning of something like that long spell of poor teams that preceded Howland and Dixon.

Comment by velvil 01.24.17 @ 7:20 pm

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