2016-17 didn’t go exactly as planned for Pittsburgh’s three college basketball programs. The three combined for only 40 wins and none of them managed a .500 record for the first time since 1997-98. One coach lost his job, another is on the hot seat after just one season at the helm. All three lost major young pieces with multiple years of eligibility remaining to transfer and all three programs appear to have some work to do to get back to where they want to be. But how close are they to getting back on track?
Of the three, Robert Morris may have the best prospects simply because of the caliber of league they play in. They have two returning upper classmen including Matty McConnell, and promising sophomore forward Dachon Burke, who averaged over 10 points a game in conference play. Problem is, the rest of the roster will be extremely young and inexperienced with much of it composed of incoming freshmen. Then Colonials are a member of the Northeast Conference, which is rated as the 30th strongest conference in the country (3rd worst) and no school in it has an RPI higher than 150, so they have more of a bump to climb than a mountain to get back to where they need to be. Despite their weak performance they still managed the third best RPI in the league last year. They also have the most stable coaching situation with Andy Toole in his eighth season at the helm. Their issue is turnover on the roster. Twelve players who could have potentially composed next year’s junior and senior classes transferred, left or were dismissed from the team including Clemson’s Marquise Reed, Eastern Michigan’s Elijah Minnie and most recently, Iona’s Isaiah Still. Again, it doesn’t take much to win in the NEC but RMU have a program that should dominate, not run off a 17-19 conference record over the last two years. If this incoming class works out, they can get right back in it as it’s not hard to out-talent the rest of the league.
I often lay awake at night and wonder which Stallings, Kevin or Jacob, will end up appearing in more games for their respective Pittsburgh club. The father, Kevin, is the Head men’s basketball coach at the University of Pittsburgh, while Jacob is a long shot catching prospect for the Indianapolis Indians who earned a big league cup of coffee last summer when the organization’s top three options were injured. Jacob was drafted in the seventh round to save slot money, but at the ripe age of 27, he is enjoying one of the best offensive stretches of his career. Thirty-three games into his tenure, Kevin was on the hot seat almost from the moment he was hired, given that Pitt fans:
- Expected an elite coach with Pennsylvania ties, but already at better programs, to fill the coaching vacancy. Names like Beaver County natives, Sean and Archie Miller as well as USC’s Andy Enfield originally of Shippensburg bandied about on the inter web. All three were long shots and clearly none took the job. However, the high expectations set the Pitt fans up for disappointment when Stallings came to town.
- Believed that Stallings was also rumored to be on the hot seat at Vanderbilt. They didn’t want a guy who at anytime could have been fired by another FBS program.
I don’t know if Stallings is the right hire, and while fans would go crazy over him getting canned after another poor season in 2017-18, moving on this quickly would likely be a mistake. Contrary to popular belief at the moment, Stallings can coach at a high level and his track record at Vandy proves it. He compiled 332 wins in 17 seasons mixing in eight twenty-win seasons and seven NCAA appearances, including two Sweet Sixteens. Sure, he had a sub .500 conference record, but if you take out his first four years at the helm, he actually was 17 games over in a power five conference. With their high academic standards, Vanderbilt is also more difficult to recruit to than their SEC peers, notorious for low admission requirements, recruiting violations, and scholastic cheating. While Pitt is no slouch, he should be able to draw from a wider pool and have a little more flexibility when problems do arise. On top of that, you have an offensive coach in Stalling taking over for a defense coach in Jamie Dixon. It’s going to take time for him to get the players he needs and for them to get the experience they need to compete in the ACC. If Pitt would fire him in his second year, they’d damage their credibility with potential new hires and start the process of building over at day one.
Surprisingly, Duquesne might have the local buzz on their side for once. Unlike Stallings who was perceived as picking low hanging fruit, Keith Dambrot is more than many imagined for the Dukes especially after their early struggles to find a new coach. Dambrot immediately becomes one of the highest paid coaches in the A-10 and certainly owns one of the longest track records. Despite being the only local coach hired this offseason, Dambrot was the first to finish his recruiting class and between carry over from his previous roster at Akron in Tavion Dunn-Martin and Michael Hughes along with Memphis transfer Craig Randall, Jr and Miami (OH) small forward Marcus Weathers, he may have assembled a competitive core on his first month on the job with just transfers even if it has to sit out a year. While there should be virtually no expectations for first year hires, Dambrot may have also salvaged something short term by bringing back guards Mike Lewis II and Rene Castro who had requested their release to transfer. I still expect a rocky road for Duquesne the next couple of years, but the path they’re on should get smoother in a few seasons. For all his challenges on the new job, Dambrot is nothing if not likable. He’ll be an easy one for Pittsburgh fans to root for which should earn him considerably more patience than Stallings will get.
It’s a grizzly time for local college hoops and questions abound. I’m not expecting things to get much better next year as all three are in clear rebuild mode. Robert Morris is in the best shape relative to their peer schools, because their peer schools suck. In theory, one good recruiting class blended with their returning players should get them back on track. Pitt has lofty expectations and a coach who needs time. Problem is, he doesn’t have much. If they begin a cycle of rapid hiring and firing, it could end up doing more damage than anyone imagines. We’re talking years even if the next coach does work out and possibly a decade if he does not. Stallings still has work to do and I expect it to take until his fourth or fifth year before he really gets the ball rolling. Duquesne will likely struggle short term but may have the clearest path back to success as the players who could facilitate their turnaround have signed and will enroll this summer. It will still be a multi year process, but I expect them to start building rather than rebuilding.