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Pitt's Stallings gets candid about 2016-17 season

| Thursday, May 4, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

His team was another man's team, the product of another man's sweat, built with a vision formulated by someone he mostly knows by reputation.

Perhaps that's what bothered Pitt coach Kevin Stallings the most about the 2016-2017 basketball season.

“By and large, everybody did the best they could,” Stallings said Thursday of a season that ended with Pitt's first losing record since 2000.

Yet, in his tone, Stallings is clear: Everybody's best is nice and what's to be expected, but not nearly enough. Not with a new athletic director unafraid to publicly speak of her quest for victory. Not with a fan base that had become accustomed to NCAA Tournament trips. Not with Stallings' own impatience hovering over the locker room.

“Now we have an opportunity to build from scratch and do things the way we feel they have to be done,” he said.

In the end, that might not be different from how former coach Jamie Dixon built it, especially if Stallings is successful. But, at least, the roster will be almost entirely stocked by Stallings' players after nine, including four seniors, left in the past few months and six new faces committed to the program.

Stallings doesn't seem as affected by the defections as those outside the program who like to make their dissatisfaction known on social media. Be assured, that losing Cam Johnson, who would have been the leading returning scorer, and Aaron Thompson, a highly regarded recruit who reneged on a signed letter of intent, was unexpected. But Crisshawn Clark would not have been cleared by Pitt's doctors after a series of ACL injuries. Justice Kithcart was dismissed for detrimental conduct, and Damon Wilson and Corey Manigault weren't in Stallings' present or future plans.

“In terms of some guys leaving,” Stallings said, “we began the process of executing the plan that I put in place that would give us the best chance to not only achieve success, but sustain success. We want players who are dependable on and off the court, selfless on and off the court and physically and mentally tough on the court.

“There were discussions (with the transfers) about their future role in the program. Nobody was asked to leave. The decision was made to leave because they want to play a lot, which I understand.”

Still, the look wasn't and isn't good, especially when news of the departures kept emerging repeatedly, one at a time for several days.

“For lack of a better term, there's some panic from the Twitter world or something, and the truth is we knew a few months after we got here (March 2016), it was going to look just like this,” he said.

Which led to another problem. When his starters faltered — and Pitt lost nine of 11 games and then closed losing five of seven — Stallings had nowhere to turn.

Junior forward Ryan Luther — his best substitute and the oak upon which next season's team will be constructed — missed much of the ACC season with a foot injury. Stallings couldn't trust most of the other reserves — players who are gone now — so he had to live with his starters' poor defense and questionable shot selection in key moments of games. If you're wondering how a team can lose 14 of 18 conference games, that's how it's done.

Nonetheless, he said he was sorry to see the season end after a victory against Georgia Tech and a loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament.

“I actually thought in the last week of the season our guys made more of an effort to come together and actually started to buy into the things we'd been talking about for most of the season,” he said. He scheduled exit interviews with seniors Michael Young, Jamel Artis, Sheldon Jeter and Chris Jones, but only Jeter and Jones took advantage of the opportunity.

Stallings said he received a recent text message from Young, who said he wants to get together for lunch. Young was given more freedom by Stallings to develop a game away from the basket that may serve him well in a pro career. Under Dixon, the 6-foot-9 Young shot 12 3-point shots as a junior; the number rose to 123 under Stallings.

“I can just tell you what Mike told me,” Stallings said. “Maybe Mike was filling me full of gas, (but) he told me he never had as much fun playing basketball. He said that multiple times throughout the season.”

For better or worse, change was the theme of the season. A new coach at Pitt for the first time in 14 years, a different style of offense, almost no depth robbing Stallings of any leverage he might have had with his team and, finally, the transfers.

“The landscape of the sport is changing, the landscape of recruiting is changing, our roster is changing,” he said. “My boss changed.”

Which is another story.

Earlier this spring, Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke replaced Scott Barnes, the man who hired Stallings and then left for Oregon State less than a year later.

“Heather has been nothing, but very, very supportive and nothing but helpful and has been very clear about her desire to partner with me in this to build this program to be the best we can make it,” Stallings said. “The chancellor (Patrick Gallagher) has been unwavering in his support from Day 1. It's important personally to me to know I have the support of my superiors. Some people don't care. I'm a person who does care about that.”

Lyke has said she wants all her programs to be winners. To which Stallings said, “Good for her. If winning didn't matter, they wouldn't keep score.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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