In late March — after Pitt head basketball coach Jamie Dixon left for Texas Christian University, and the Panthers replaced him with Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings — whispers began to spread.
Sheldon Jeter is gone! Michael Young and Jamel Artis are going to enter the NBA Draft! Chris Jones can leave without sitting out a year, so why would he stay? The entire freshman class: sayonara!
Pitt fans immediately jumped to the conclusion that a new coach would drive out the talented core of an impressive crop of returning players. Stallings’ murky history with Jeter, a key member of the Panthers’ rotation, didn’t help to quell the rumors.
But instead, Stallings kept the team together, thanks in part to the help of his former Commodore.
Although Stallings blocked Jeter’s transfer out of Vanderbilt in 2013, forcing him to spend a year at Polk State in Florida, the Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, native actually ended up convincing every player eligible to leave to stay at Pitt –– a huge gambit for the 55-year-old head coach.
Jeter admitted he was “shocked” when Pitt hired Stallings, but he wasn’t holding any grudges. After speaking with the new coach and Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes, he determined he should stay –– and was instrumental in others remaining as well.
“A lot of guys were nervous. They didn’t really know what was going to happen. And me, being down there [at Vanderbilt] for a year, they just asked me whether we should stay or leave,” Jeter said. “I just told them that coach is a genuine guy. Everything he says he means. He’ll take care of you. Trust his process, and he’ll get you where you want to get to.”
Redshirt sophomore forward Cameron Johnson said he wasn’t surprised that everyone remained in Oakland, noting that the Panthers were close to one another and wanted to remain teammates.
Stallings did meet with every player individually, which helped in convincing potential NBA Draft entrants Young and Artis to stay.
“I think what Coach Stallings had to do was come in and say exactly what he said,” Johnson said. “He got us all on board pretty quick, and I don’t think there was any hesitation.”
Stallings, though, said that Jeter was one of the biggest factors in keeping the team together.
“I thought Sheldon Jeter had quite a bit to do with [players buying in],” Stallings said. “I think his voice in the locker room of saying, ‘Hey, this guy is a good guy. He’s gonna help us. He’s gonna be there for us,’ [helped].”
Artis, who said he was convinced to stay by talking to Jeter and former Vanderbilt coaches, said his excitement about fitting into Stallings’ system was the main motivation for his decision to stay put.
“Me and [Stallings] talked,” Artis said. “I could have took a shot [at the NBA Draft], but I wanted to stay for my last year. I wanted to trust this coach.”
Artis also said that the opportunity to bring the ball up as a point guard and show more to NBA scouts was a factor in his return.
One player who didn’t need much swaying was redshirt senior shooting guard Chris Jones.
Despite having the ability to switch schools as a graduate transfer without having to sit out a year, Jones said his mind was already set on staying before he even met Stallings.
“He didn’t have to convince me. I love the city of Pittsburgh, I love the fans, I love the people,” Jones said. “When he first got hired, I did a little bit of reading on him. I was pretty much 90 percent here from the beginning, and when he came in and talked to us, I was sold.”
Players are lauding Stallings for the amount of trust their new coach has placed on them. Jeter described his offensive system as “structured freedom” –– creating sets but allowing players to pick their shots and “just go.”
Still, Stallings understands this honeymoon of happiness will likely not last forever.
“This is the best time of year for a college basketball coach, because every kid thinks he’s going to start and play 30 minutes a game,” Stallings said. “But when those role definitions settle in, and certain guys don’t get the role they expected to get … that’s when you find out how together you are on the court.”
Jeter acknowledged there will always be an adjustment period, but that the Panthers are already buying into their new coach.
“Any time you have a new parent, there’s going to be the resistance at some point,” Jeter said. “But as a team, we met about it, and we’re fully trusting him now.”