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It's about to get real for Pitt, Duquesne basketball

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, 5:36 p.m.
Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings congratulates Jonathan Milligan after beating UC-Santa Barbara for the team's first win of the season Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 at Petersen Events Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings congratulates Jonathan Milligan after beating UC-Santa Barbara for the team's first win of the season Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 at Petersen Events Center.
Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings watches from the bench during a game against Mount St. Mary's Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, at Petersen Events Center.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings watches from the bench during a game against Mount St. Mary's Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, at Petersen Events Center.
Coach Keith Dambrot led Duquesne to its third consecutive victory Saturday afternoon.
Coach Keith Dambrot led Duquesne to its third consecutive victory Saturday afternoon.

The college basketball season — the real one — opens on two fronts Saturday.

Pitt meets Miami in its ACC opener at Petersen Events Center and Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot ventures into the Atlantic 10 for the first time, confronting Dayton at Palumbo Center. Both games are set to tip off at 4 p.m.

Now that the easier, nonconference portion of both teams' schedules are finished, the cover comes off the product. Because of the major reshuffling of both rosters, fans might be wary of what they will find.

Is Duquesne's 9-4 record merely a reflection of the second-easiest schedule in Division I (350th of 351 teams, according to the Ken Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings)? Was Pitt's strong second-half effort in a 69-60 loss to No. 7 West Virginia three weeks ago an indication the Panthers can be competitive in the ACC?

With 45 collective years as head coaches, Dambrot and Pitt's Kevin Stallings have clear understandings of their teams' limitations. They also are eager to see if they can be minimized over the next two months.

“I don't think we can play a high-scoring game and win,” Dambrot said. “We have to be kind of like the ugly duckling. We have to grind it and out and win in a low-scoring game.”

Jon Rothstein, a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports, believes Duquesne made the right choice in a coach, considering the difficult chore of making the Dukes relevant after 40 years without an NCAA Tournament bid.

“He's a grinder's grinder,” Rothstein said. “People need to be realistic. It's not how the rebuild is going. It's how's the build going?”

Meanwhile, Pitt (8-5) lost five games in November and December for the first time since 1998-99, the season before Ben Howland arrived.

“This is like his first year. He's starting over,” Rothstein said of Stallings, who brought back only two players from last season, his first at Pitt.

Is Stallings up to the challenge of restoring Pitt's lost glory under Howland and Jamie Dixon?

Rothstein believes Stallings brings with him at least one important coaching trait: the ability to coach offense. Other coaches, most notably Virginia Tech's Buzz Williams, have pointed to Stallings' talent in that area.

“Not many people in college basketball can get good shooters good shots like he can,” Rothstein said. “But you have to have the personnel. The million-dollar question is are you going to be good enough to recruit guys who can win games at Duke, at Louisville, at North Carolina?”

So far, some players recruited by Stallings have shown promise.

Rothstein said junior college transfer Jared Wilson-Frame and freshman point guard Marcus Carr, who are averaging 12.8 and 11.8 points per game, can be “very good” ACC players.

Stallings goes a step further, calling freshman Shamiel Stevenson, whose body is uniquely structured at 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, a potential “difference-maker over the course of his career.”

But are these big-time basketball first-timers ready for the rigors of the ACC? After Miami, Pitt plays Louisville and Virginia Tech on the road before coming home to play Duke. Respective KenPom rankings: Miami (17th), Louisville (33rd), Virginia Tech (39th) and Duke (4th). Pitt checks in at 162.

“The collective effect of the ACC is so brutal and such a mental dynamic that any coach would struggle,” Rothstein said. “There are a lot of good teams in college basketball that could go 0-4 (in Pitt's opening stretch).”

He acknowledged, however, Pitt has improved since opening the season by losing to Navy (193rd) and Montana (138th).

Duquesne's schedule is much easier, based on seven ACC teams ranked among KenPom's top 27. An Atlantic 10 team doesn't show up until Rhode Island at No. 45. Duquesne is 206th.

Like Stallings, Dambrot said his team has been fun to coach. “They try really hard to do what we have to do,” he said.

Plus, he's been encouraged by his team's play in three specific areas that may pay off in close games.

“I don't think we have better talent than what teams have in the A-10, but we have qualities to stay in a game,” Dambrot said.

“We've shown to be a good rebounding team (38.1 per game to the opponent's 33.8),” he said. “We guard the 3 line (teams are shooting 29.4 percent from beyond the arc). And we take relatively good care of the basketball (144 turnovers to the opponents' 177).”

Some of those numbers might be products of a weak nonconference schedule. Seven of Duquesne's nine victories are against teams ranked by KenPom between 310-351.

At Pitt, Stallings knows he and his team will be judged by how many games they win. But he will base his evaluation on how — or if — it improves in practices and games.

“We can play a good game and get beat,” he said. “We are not perfect by any stretch and not a finished product. But they are a good group of fighters. They don't make excuses, and they don't look for reasons not to (do something).”

Wilson-Frame realizes the ACC sets up a difficult gauntlet, but he said, “This is what everybody on this team came here for. We are prepared to turn people's heads.”

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

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