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A year of firsts: Young team works to make change - The Pitt News

The Pitt News

A year of firsts: Young team works to make change

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First-year guard Parker Stewart (1) shoots during Pitt’s 69-60 loss to West Virginia Dec. 9, 2017.

First-year guard Parker Stewart (1) shoots during Pitt’s 69-60 loss to West Virginia Dec. 9, 2017.

First-year guard Parker Stewart (1) shoots during Pitt’s 69-60 loss to West Virginia Dec. 9, 2017.

By Trent Leonard | Staff Writer

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Pitt first-year guard Marcus Carr is no stranger to rookie success.

As a first-year at St. Michaels in his native Toronto, Carr once scored a season-high 49 points in one game — and was instrumental in leading his team to the quarterfinals of the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations quarterfinals.

We were pretty much the best team in Canada,” Carr said. “We never lost.”

In his first year playing for the Pitt men’s basketball team, Carr was once again asked to step up as a primary source of production. He finished the season as the Panthers’ leader in minutes played, steals and assists, and also scored the second-most points with 320 — though his team didn’t enjoy the same success as high school.

Carr and fellow first-year players Parker Stewart, Khameron Davis, Shamiel Stevenson and Terrell Brown emerged as some of the most important players on the Pitt basketball team this season, tallying the first, third, fourth, fifth and seventh most minutes played, respectively.

First-year guard Khameron Davis (13) attempts a layup at Pitt’s 82-78 victory over Mount St. Mary’s Dec. 5, 2017.

But while Pitt’s first-year players surpassed expectations within the team, the Panthers finished with one of their worst seasons in program history. Pitt finished the season with an 8-24 overall record and went winless in the ACC, making them the only Division I team to not win a conference game.

This was projected to be a rebuilding season for the Panthers regardless, but no one could have foreseen how big of a role Pitt’s first-year players would play.

Coming into the season, rising senior forward Ryan Luther was primed to be the focal point of the Panthers’ offense. After all, he was the only returning player with significant playing experience after the team was plagued by graduation and transfers in the offseason — including standout junior Cam Johnson, who left for UNC after averaging 11.9 points per game for Pitt.

Senior guard Jonathan Milligan and junior forward Jared Wilson-Frame — playing his first season for Pitt after transferring from Northwest Florida State — were also prime candidates to lead the way for the young, inexperienced Panthers.

Milligan started at point guard during Pitt’s season opener against Navy but quickly proved to be unfit for the starting role, leading the way for Carr to take the reins as the team’s bona fide starting point guard.

And when Luther suffered a season-ending stress injury to his right foot during a December game against West Virginia, the stage was completely set for a first-year takeover.

“Before, Ryan took a lot of the pressure off. He’s a great passer, great creator,” first-year guard Khameron Davis said. “Without Ryan, we had to learn how to score on our own. We had to learn how to play harder, how to rebound better and play defense better as a team.”

With first-year players making up the majority of the active roster, Stallings had no choice but to embrace the youth movement. The Panthers started five first-years for the first time in program history on Jan. 2 against Louisville.

Those five players — Carr, Davis, Stewart, Stevenson and Brown — led the Panthers in nearly every statistical category. In addition to Carr’s contributions, Stewart led the Panthers in three-point field goal percentage, while Stevenson led the team in rebounds and Brown in blocks.

And while Pitt’s young talent wasn’t able to find success on the court, they did shine somewhere else — in the classroom, where the Panthers placed a league-high and program-best five players on the 2018 All-ACC Academic Team. Of those five players — Wilson-Frame, Carr, Stewart, Stevenson and Davis — four were first-years.

“We all know each other, and we know that if we stick together we can build something special here,” Carr said. “We know the talent level that each of us has, and the possibilities that lay ahead of us in the future.”

First-year forward/center Terrell Brown (21) shoots a layup at Pitt’s 63-57 loss to Wake Forest Feb. 21.

All six first-year players live in the same suite, paired two per room, at Sutherland Hall. When they’re not spending time together on the court during games or practice, they typically spend their free time doing schoolwork, following the NBA and other college basketball teams or playing video games like NBA 2K and Fortnite.

“We’re around each other all day,” Stewart said, “so that helps us gel even more.”

While last offseason brought much uncertainty about the Panthers’ roster going forward — five players transferred to other programs — this core of young players seems to be on the same page in terms of moving forward as a unit.

“We’re always hanging out, almost to a fault,” Carr said. “We’re around each other all the time.”

Carr, Stewart, Stevenson, Davis and Brown seem to be here to stay, but the same cannot be said for their head coach, Kevin Stallings, whose firing Pitt announced Thursday.

Despite all the losses, adversity and coaching uncertainty, Pitt’s youthful talent remains optimistic that they can improve together.

“We know our team is young, but we’ve seen the future, what we can have here at Pitt if we all stick together,” Stewart said. “We just need to trust the process, that this thing will improve each year.”

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A year of firsts: Young team works to make change