If life were like the movies, this year’s Pitt men’s basketball team could sneak into March Madness and win the whole thing.
But life isn’t a movie, and Pitt will be lucky to win 10 games. The Panthers’ second season with head coach Kevin Stallings as the leader will start with as much uncertainty and mystery as the first did. The Panthers’ roster is mostly first-years and transfers from junior colleges and is likely the worst team in the ACC. But, according to Stallings, the team can handle that.
“As a coach, I’ve been around long enough to know that you don’t know what you have until adversity hits you,” Stallings said. “That’s when you find out who you really are and what you’re really made of. Are they really going to stay together and keep being that group that they are right now? I think this group will be.”
The Panthers feature a myriad of new faces, with only three players returning from last year’s team. Pitt is entering a full-on youth movement with seven of the 11 new scholarship players entering the program as first-years.
Senior forward Ryan Luther — a 6-foot-9 do-it-all big man and former sixth man — and redshirt senior guard Jonathan Milligan — a 6-foot-2 quick-knockdown 3-point shooter — will both be returning to the court for the Panthers. Redshirt senior guard Zach Smith sat out last season because of transfer rules, but will also be back with the Panthers this year.
Since the Panthers aren’t returning any starters from last season, their success as a team depends a great deal on the ability of the new fearsome threesome of junior college and graduate transfer players — Jared Wilson-Frame, Kene Chukwuka and Monty Boykins.
These players — players that, at least, have some experience in college play — should be able to adapt their games to the ACC and are likely to play significant minutes for the Panthers. There is a real possibility that all three will start on opening day for Pitt.
Wilson-Frame has the potential to rack up some points for Pitt. The guard/forward was the leading scorer on his Northwest Florida State College team last year, averaging 15.4 points per game. Wilson-Frame boasts a well-rounded scoring arsenal, attacking the rim off drives and raining in 3-pointers.
“This is something I’ve been watching, preparing myself for for a long time,” Wilson-Frame said. “This level, no matter who you’re playing, you have to bring it every day. I knew that’s how it would be.”
The Swedish-born Chukwuka, a recruit Stallings brought in from New Mexico Junior College, adds much-needed size to Pitt’s thin front court. In his lone season with the Thunderbirds, Chukwuka showed off some shooting touch from the perimeter. His willingness to take long-range shots is a nice fit in the modern basketball landscape.
Boykins has the highest potential, as a former starter for the Lafayette Leopards when he was healthy. He missed most of his last season with the Leopards due to a shoulder injury. Now, the 6-foot-5 guard will get a fresh start as the sharp-shooting veteran on a young team.
Even though the team is young, there are already some budding standouts. First-year guard Marcus Carr might be the Panthers’ most intriguing new player. The Toronto native comes to Pittsburgh by way of Florida powerhouse Montverde Academy, where he played alongside fellow Canadian and ESPN’s 2018 top rated recruit R.J. Barrett.
Carr could be an impact player from the start. Whether by necessity or skill — and there is plenty of both — the first-year guard should be in the starting lineup by the end of the year. Carr’s ability to set up elite teammates might be what brought him to this point, but now, he’ll have ample opportunities as the leading man.
While Carr might end up in the spotlight, Khameron Davis, Shamiel Stevenson and Parker Stewart will most likely be competing with one another for limited minutes.
Defensively, the Panthers might struggle to find an identity. Young players can take time to adjust to the collegiate game, especially in the ACC. On top of that, the Panthers aren’t a team with a ton of length inside. First-year center/forward Terrell Brown is the tallest player on the roster at 6-foot-10. The recently reinstated and 6-foot-9 center from Nigeria, Peace Ilegomah could offer some help inside in spot minutes.
Don’t be surprised if Stallings begrudgingly breaks out some zone play to mitigate potential Panthers defensive shortcomings early on in the year. Wing depth will be another concern for Pitt all season. At 6 feet 7 inches, first-year forward Samson George is the Panthers’ sole player with a true wing size of 7-foot-1. He’s a power forward — though on offense, he plays like a big man.
St. John’s junior transfer Malik Ellison, though, is sitting out the season due to NCAA transfer rules. Ellison may well be joined on the bench by former-Pitt-club-basketball-players-turned walk-ons, sophomore Anthony Starzynski and junior Joe Mascaro. It is highly unexpected that either player would end the season with any stats, let alone any minutes on the court.
There’s no denying it, the Panthers face low expectations. Yet, the upside of low expectations is that the young players will get plenty of time to learn. The year will likely be a long one for Stallings, his coaching staff and any fans who decide to watch.
“We’ll get knocked on our head a few times, but these guys I’m pretty sure are going to compete,” Stallings said. “There’s enough talent there that eventually we’ll be a good team.”