It feels like an eternity since March 21, when Jamie Dixon’s resignation forced the Pitt men’s basketball team to find a new head coach for the first time in 13 years.
The Panthers hired Kevin Stallings away from Vanderbilt to replace him — a move that was met with immediate and widespread criticism.
Stallings hasn’t yet had a chance to step onto the court in front of the Oakland Zoo and prove his detractors wrong, but that time will come in just 10 days. Pitt opens its regular season with a home matchup against Eastern Michigan at the Petersen Events Center Friday, Nov. 11, at 7 p.m.
With the offseason winding down and live game action fast approaching, Stallings laid out his plans for the season with a new group of players, his expectations for his first year coaching the Panthers, and opened up about his transition from Nashville to Pittsburgh.
The Pitt News: What has the past seven months been like for you since being hired by Pitt?
Kevin Stallings: The best way I can describe it is fast and furious. It’s been exhilarating, energizing, exciting — all of those things. There just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day. I feel like there are so many things that need to be done and have to be done. And at the same time, as mundane as it sounds, you can only do what you can do.
So, I’ve enjoyed it immensely, I think it’s been productive, I think we’ve made great strides with our team, which is really ultimately the most important thing. But between trying to get to know people and get settled in and do the aspects of the job that are not coaching and recruiting, and then throwing on the coaching and the recruiting, it’s been quite hectic. But again, I feel like we’re getting a lot done.
TPN: Do you think you’ve had enough time to implement your system?
KS: We’re getting there. I wasn’t overly thrilled with how we looked on Saturday [at the open intrasquad scrimmage]. So that was a little bit of an eye-opener for me, because we’ve been much better in practice. And we were much better yesterday in practice.
Probably a good thing for me, because maybe I was a little too comfortable with the thought that we were doing better than we were actually doing. I don’t know if that was sort of an out-of-body experience and not who we are. I don’t know enough about these guys as you’d think I would after seven months. We’re getting there.
TPN: Do you worry that they’re not going to be ready for the start of the season given how they performed at the scrimmage?
KS: I’m worried every year that we’re not going to be ready for the start of the season … I worry about getting the things in that we need to have in so that they’re completely ready and know how to deal with any situation they’re confronted with. But I’m not worried, because we’ve got a veteran group, they know how to play, they know how to compete. We didn’t do it the way I wanted to on Saturday, but we will.
We showed [the scrimmage] to them on film before practice yesterday, and they came out and were determined to fix it. And it looked like our other practice sessions, where we’ve been very competitive. So really, for me, schemes aside, it’s going to come down to ball care, defensive play and how well we do on the boards.
We’ve got shot makers — we’ve got guys that are individually talented on the offensive end. If we’re as unselfish as I think we are, even though we took a number of bad shots on Saturday … I think once we get through those moments — because we’ve been a very unselfish group in practice in terms of the way we share the ball — I think our offense will be fun to watch and we’ll be fine.
TPN: What excited you about coming to Pitt, and what concerns do you have about coaching this team?
KS: When I got to the group, I think the thing that excited me when I got involved with this team, the first thing is I like the fact that we have a lot of experience. These guys have been through league play — they know the toughness that it takes and the grit that it takes and the grind that it is. And then as I started watching them play, and I kept having people tell me, “Hey, you’ve got some good players.” Then it became very obvious to me: yeah, we have some good players.
Depth, I’m a little concerned about. We need some guys to come through from a depth standpoint, because you can’t just win with five or six. But the core group and the older guys, not only do I feel like they’re talented players, but they play well together … I do think this is an offensive-minded group, a team that can score. Obviously we’ve got a couple of guys that are particularly gifted scoring-wise.
That’s my job is to make sure our guys understand that it’s not really an equal-opportunity offense … it’s not because I don’t like somebody else as much as I like [senior forward] Mike Young — it’s just that Mike Young has shown me that he can put the ball in the basket more than anybody else can. So, I’m an idiot of a coach if I don’t give him the most shots. Simple as that.
TPN: What are your expectations going into the year, and what would make a successful first year for you?
KS: First of all, my expectations for the year are the same as any year. My job is to try to make our group greater than the sum of its parts. That’s how you overachieve, is if everybody together equals a much greater value than [what] anybody’s individual part equals. That’s my first goal is that we’re just greater than the sum of our individual parts and that collectively we get as close to reaching their potential as I can help them get to.
What would be a successful season is if I do that. For me, I can’t allow myself to gauge success in the same way that fans in the media or whoever does. I have to gauge success based on the more important and bigger factors.