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A closer look at Kevin Stallings and roster turnover

When I gave my assessment of the job done by head men's basketball coach Kevin Stallings this season, I stated that I didn't want an entire offseason dedicated to the first-year coach's performance. But it's been a while since Pitt's basketball season officially ended with their ouster in the ACC Tournament and I'd been wanting to see/hear a little more from Stallings since then. Fortunately, Craig Mayer from the Post-Gazette provided that on Tuesday.

If you haven't yet read his article yet, check it out. Much of it reflects on Stallings' bench (or lack thereof) and how that contributed to the season.

Regardless of what you might blame him for, it's difficult to blame him for a lack of depth. He inherited this team and while we can all feel differently about the rest of the makeup of the team and if he should have done a better job with them, no one can look at the team and say it was a deep one. Beyond the depth, Stallings took the opportunity to again point to the failure of his players to buy in, but I don't want to focus on that because it's been beaten to death. The thing I wanted to mention was something else that came later in the article.

There, Stallings also delved into the subject of scholarships for players on last year's team. Stallings seemed to say that one thing he could have done was yank scholarships before the season after he was named as coach. But that he wanted to do the right thing. Here was the quote in its entirety from Mayer's article:

"I tried to do the ethically right thing, despite the fact maybe I could have made some changes," he said. "I didn't think it was the right thing to do. I try not to make short-term decisions. I try to make long-term decisions for what's in the best interest in the long-term and for the good of the program. Maybe it would have allowed me to have a better season or better start, but the institution awarded those scholarships and I believe they should be honored."

So, this one's really interesting.

For one, I'd be curious to know what types of moves Stallings would have considered making. Based on the guys that ended up transferring this season, the first players that come to mind here are Corey Manigault, Damon Wilson, and Crisshawn Clark. Then there's Justice Kithcart, who was dismissed in the middle of the season., so let's take those four along with reserve big man Rozelle Nix.

Three of those players (Manigault, Wilson, Kithcart) were rated as four-star recruits by at least one recruiting service upon coming to the program. Even if you personally may not have recruited any of them, booting one from the roster before not having played a single minute (or in Wilson's case, only a little last year) would have raised eyebrows and looked odd considering the players that would be available as replacements. Nix? Maybe that's the one exception and there's little doubt that he often does not look like he belongs in the ACC. But even in that case, ironically, Nix is the only one still left for now and was a player that Stallings actually used down the stretch.

I don't believe that Stallings was likely to make moves right away. Maybe Nix, but it's hard to see much beyond that and that wouldn't have significantly changed the team. Plus, even in the transfer and grad transfer game, something that's changed the way coaches assemble their rosters, there are no guarantees there. Pitt has had really next to no luck in that department and looking at a team that made the NCAA Tournament with four of five starters coming back, my guess is that, initially, anyway, he felt okay about the team.

At some point in the summer, though, he was probably a little more concerned about the talent here. By the preseason, he sounded like a coach somewhat of a panic mode based on what he'd seen to that point.

While I was digging for Stallings stuff to supplement Mayer's article, I came across this from before the start of the season. This was part of his assessment after the Blue-Gold game and is sort of telling about what he thought of the roster at that point:

The Panthers are clearly still adjusting to Stallings' system and that led to more than a few mistakes. Stallings didn't mince words about it, either. "There were guys that played well to you guys that were disasters to me. I won't go into any names," Stallings said. "I mean disasters."

He also added:

"I didn't see much defense," Stallings said. "I'll get to have fun in the film session because I'll get to show them what they really looked like. I won't have to say too much. I probably will, but I won't really have to."

That first part isn't just the typical coachspeak stuff where a coach will say things like, we have a lot of work to do, etc.  Almost every coach says something along those lines after the first scrimmage of the season. But by coining players as 'disasters', it sort of gives you the sense that Stallings knew where this year could be headed. There's a difference between guys needing work, needing practice, etc., and being a flat out disaster.

And what I'll say will come as a surprise to some people, but perhaps, even, he is a better evaluator of talent than what Jamie Dixon was.

Stallings and the team had a bad year. There's no doubt about it. And as I've said before, I think he could have/should have gotten more out of these guys. But looking back at that quote, it's interesting that Stallings pretty quickly was able to identify that more talent was needed. Many of us felt pretty good about what the season would bring (including myself), but he did not.

Stallings very clearly felt by that point that he had a dearth of talent to win games. And given how effective guys like Manigault, Clark, and Wilson were this season, he's at least partially right there. Pitt could have won more games, I'm convinced, with a different style of play. But in terms of his style of play, he certainly needed different players. Much to his delight, the roster will turn almost completely over next season. Now it's up to him to manage the pieces he himself put into place.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Fun with Numbers: A look at the raw numbers of what Pitt basketball needs to replace next year

We all know that Pitt's basketball team loses quite a bit for next season. That's something we've not only talked a lot about as the season went on, but anticipated before the year even began. And given the seniors that are out of eligibility and, more recently, the transfers, I was curious to see just how much (or in this case, how little) production will be returning to the team next year.

Here's a closer look at just how much the Panthers won't return for next season. We're just now into the offseason so more departures are still possible. But as of right now, here's what the team loses in terms of pure numbers.

The Panthers lose:

  • 85% of their scoring - Cam Johnson is the leading-returning scorer with 11.9 points per game. Seeing him get up to 15 or so seems like practically a given based on how little the Panthers have coming back and he could be in line for an even bigger jump depending on how much he's asked to do.
  • 69% of their rebounding - There wasn't quite as big of a hit here as there was with the scoring since Cam Johnson wasn't terrible on the glass and the Panthers' top two returning reserves, Ryan Luther and Rozelle Nix, were big men. But, obviously, that's still a lot. Cam Johnson is the leading returning rebounder (notice a trend here?) with 4.5 rebounds per game.
  • 81% of their assists - This was a down area this year for the team as they averaged only 14 assists per game. As I've said before, part of that was due to Michael Young and Jamel Artis just sort of dominating the ball. Cam Johnson and his 2.3 assists per contest lead the team in terms of returnees.
  • 70% of their steals - Again, not a big number since the team averaged a meager four per game. Heck, some college players have averaged almost that by themselves. Cam Johnson's .9 steals per game led the team this year.
  • 87% of their blocks - Again, a very small number. Pitt averaged only three blocks as an entire team and finally, someone other than Cam leads the way coming back. That would be Ryan Luther and his .7 per game.
  • 82% of their free throw attempts - Cam Johnson leads the way again here as far as returning players as he got to the line 74 times last year.
Pitt will have other guys step in, step up, etc. But some of these numbers are still sort of eyepopping. Just another reminder that, regardless of who plays and steps up next year, the team will look vastly different than this year. Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt Football Spring Practices: Rafael Araujo-Lopes in for expanded role in 2017?

Rafael Araujo-Lopes came to Pitt for the 2015 season after a monster 1,200+ yard year in JUCO ball. That led some to believe he might even contribute to the team right away, with only Tyler Boyd as a 'sure thing' at receiver that season.

But Araujo-Lopes not only redshirted that year, but he was used sparingly last season. As a redshirt sophomore in 2016, he managed only three catches for 36 yards.

Despite that lack of production, though, could this finally be the year he gets on the field more? If you listen to head coach Pat Narduzzi, that's possible.

Pitt had a closed scrimmage on Saturday and when asked, Narduzzi suggested that Araujo-Lopes was one of the guys that stood out. "I think the one guy that was consistent was Rafael Araujo-Lopes," said Narduzzi. "I was really proud of the things he did."

While he had only three catches last season, one area Araujo-Lopes did carve out a little for himself was in Matt Canada's explosive offense as a rusher. As one of the players involved in the coordinator's jet sweep plays, Araujo-Lopes did play a little in that role, with six carries and a 5.3 yard-per-carry average. Even with Canada gone, Narduzzi envisions him doing more of that this year, working alongside Quadree Henderson.

"I think that is what we are striving to do," Narduzzi added. "He was able to do some of those things last year. He did them in the game, probably not as many big plays as Quadree, but he had those opportunities. He's done those things; he's seen himself on video. I like the way he's working right now."

Araujo-Lopes still isn't a sure thing to play a ton. Both starters from last year, Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson, return. And to be honest, he even has work to do just to climb up the depth chart as a reserve. Young receivers Tre Tipton and Aaron Mathews both return, as does Maurice Ffrench, who played a role in the jet sweeps as well. That's not even mentioning redshirt freshman Ruben Flowers (rated as high as a four-star recruit last year) and the incoming freshmen, including Michael Smith, who had 1,500+ yards in high school last year and was offered by Notre Dame, among others.

For now, though, Araujo-Lopes seems like he will be a factor for playing time in the fall. And the more competition Pitt has at receiver, the better.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt Football Spring Practices: Jordan Whitehead may be changing safety positions for 2017

News came out after Tuesday's Pitt football practice that Jordan Whitehead may be changing positions. No, he isn't moving from safety to corner. Rather, Whitehead could move from the boundary safety spot to the field safety spot (which is how Pitt classifies their strong/free safety positions, respectively).

Head coach Pat Narduzzi discussed the potential move. "We are giving Jordan a little bit of reps to the field safety as well, trying to find out who our two best safeties are," said Narduzzi. "He's got a chance to play the field as well as the boundary now.

The reason for the possible move? Both players at that spot last year, Terrish Webb and Reggie Mitchell, are now gone. "That's our next step is getting him able to play both and he may be the guy at free safety with Reggie (Mitchell) gone and T-Webb [Terrish Webb] gone," added the head coach. "He might be the next guy out there. I see a lot of good things out of him."

Whitehead acknowledged that he was the only player on the team who knew that spot in Pitt's scheme and that he's been playing there since spring practices kicked off.

"As soon as spring started, I moved to the field," Whitehead acknowledged. "We lost Reggie Mitchell and Terrish Webb last year, so I was the only guy who knew that spot. I learned from them both, in case they need me wherever."

Where does he want to play? It sounds as if he enjoys playing the new field safety spot.

"They're very similar [positions], but with one there is a little more covering. I like it a lot."

As Narduzzi said, the free safety spot is a little more difficult. That's because you're out there and sort of reacting to the play as it develops. The benefit, however, is that playing field safety should present a few more chances for interceptions for him since he's back there with a little more freedom move around and being a little more of a factor in the passing game. The other side to that is that he may not be as much of a force in stopping the run as he has been.

Another thing is that Whitehead should even be a little 'safer' back there and less prone to injury since he'd be less involved in run coverage. He's an important part of the defense and while you can get hurt playing anywhere, seeing a little less contact isn't necessarily a bad thing when you're such a key player and with Pitt's lack of safety experience behind him.

Either way, though, even if Whitehead doesn't move (though, it sounds as if he will), Pitt still needs another safety to replace Webb and Mitchell. Two that Narduzzi cited during practices are Dennis Briggs and Phil Campbell. You can bet that the other safety spot opposite Whitehead will be something to watch this fall.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

A Panther for Life - Cardiac Hill Adds a Writer

Meet the Newest Member of our Team

Hello everyone, my name is Jordan, and my obsession with Pitt sports began on a brutally hot August afternoon in 1997. Fueled by several cans of Surge, I walked up the seemingly endless hill to Pitt Stadium with my dad. We were joined by my dad’s best friend and his son. Our pregame activities consisted of several trips to the concessions and my dad trying to convince me that the WQED tower was where the teams kicked field goals. Pitt beat the Southwestern Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (greatest nickname in college football by the way) 45-13 that day and I was hooked. Two years later I was lucky enough to attend the last game at Pitt Stadium.

The early days of my Pitt basketball fandom consisted of a lot of disappointment and trying to convince myself that "if Jarrett Lockhart can just get hot from the outside, they might have a chance." Adolescence was filled with Larry Fitzgerald hero worship and picking Pitt to win the National Championship every year in my bracket (yes, the 2005 team was going to be the first 9th seed to do it). When it came time for college applications, it was pretty clear where I was headed. I applied to Pitt because I was going to go there and Penn State just so I could make them waste paper mailing me an acceptance letter.

One of the highlights of my time at school was going to 13-9 and having a WVU fan with his young daughter tell me, "Thanks for ruining our Christmas" in the stadium parking lot afterward. On the other hand, I also spent money going to the Sun Bowl so not every memory was a happy one.

My writing career began with simple Facebook note basketball game recaps during senior year (2010-2011). It was a way for me to talk about something I loved and inform my friends about each game. The next year I moved to grad school (Pitt, obviously) and started a blog, which I operated for four years before the responsibilities of adulthood took over.

Currently, I am a married father of two (my daughter is 19 months and my son is due in July), working for a sports tech company.  I usually do not have a beard, but below is a photograph of my daughter and me at the Syracuse game this year. I enjoy writing about the emotion of the game and finding trends in the data such as "How much better does Brad Wanamaker shoot when he starts the night off by driving to the basket?" Although I love statistics (I was a high school math teacher for four years), I try not to include too many of them in my writing.

Although, I won’t be able to contribute as much to the blog as I would like, I am thankful to Anson for giving me the opportunity to talk about Pitt sports with fans as passionate as I am.

Hail to Pitt,

Jordan

Former Pitt center Steven Adams enjoying career year in Oklahoma City

With the loss of superstar Kevin Durant in the offseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder probably expected to get a little more out of players whose opportunities may have been a bit limited in the past. One of those guys is former Pitt center Steven Adams and the big man has mostly played well this year.

On offense, Adams is experiencing career-highs almost across the board. His minutes are up, playing about 30 minutes a game instead of the 25 or so he was playing in each of the past two seasons. As a result, Adams is scoring and rebounding more as both his 11.7 points and 7.6 rebounds to date would both be career-bests, as would be his assist and steal totals - both just slightly over one per game. Without Durant, Adams is a larger part of the offense. He's getting over eight shots per game, which is easily the most he's had in any season during his career.

Perhaps most importantly, if you've not yet seen the videos he produces with fellow big man, Enes Kanter, you're missing out.

One area where there's room for improvement? On defense. He's been mostly solid, but admitted to having some lapses in a recent slide for the Thunder.

But overall, Adams is playing pretty well this season and he remains one of the team's key players beyond MVP candidate Russell Westbrook. He's now in his third consecutive year as Oklahoma City's starting center and carving out a nice career after his Pitt days.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pat Santoro reportedly interviewing for Pitt wrestling coaching job

Pitt's head wrestling coaching vacancy has been open since the program dismissed Jason Peters back in January. At least one report has the Panthers targeting a big name in Lehigh coach Pat Santoro. According to Lehigh Valley Live, Santoro will interview for the job on Tuesday.

Santoro would be the splash hire that many have coveted for the wrestling program for a while. If you're unfamiliar with him, he runs a top wrestling outfit at tiny Lehigh. Year after year, they are a ranked program and he's had a lot of success developing top talent despite being at a smaller school. Lehigh was 12th in the team scoring at the national championships this season (a full 20 spots ahead of Pitt) and produced a national champion at 125 pounds in Darian Cruz.

Equally as important is that Santoro is a Pitt grad and wrestling for the program, won two national championships himself. If he lands this job, it very easily could be the last one he takes, despite being a relatively young coach (he wrestled for Pitt in the late 1980s). A Santoro hire could ultimately mean that the wrestling program doesn't have to worry about another coach for 20 years or so.

The thing that could stand in the way of Pitt and Santoro? As mentioned in that Lehigh Valley Live article - money and commitment:

Santoro, the Mountain Hawks' nine-year head coach and a graduate of Pittsburgh, told a meeting of Lehigh wrestlers that he was unlikely to take the post unless Pitt made a major financial commitment to the program and updated its facilities, according to sources.

The interest in Santoro was natural and, as the same site said only a week ago, he apparently isn't as appreciated by all of the fan base despite having a good amount of success there.

It should go without saying but Pitt needs to do whatever they can to land Santoro. As has been discussed on this blog for quite a while, it's one of the sports that the Panthers could dominate given the right situation. They're in arguably the best recruiting territory in the country and with a past history of All-Americans and Top 25 finishes, have a strong foundation.

The facilities are a big hurdle to clear and hopefully Pitt decides the investment is worth it. That's important not only for trying to land Santoro but also for the future to bring in recruits and keep guys from transferring out (see Teshan Campbell).

Interestingly enough, facilities is one area that new athletics director Heather Lyke worked on recently at her last job. As I mentioned in my initial writeup about her, she recently developed a plan for $35 million in funding for facilities. Hopefully, upgrades for wrestling facilities is one vision she can communicate to Santoro in the hopes of landing him.

Other qualified candidates certainly exist but between his ties to the school and reputation, Santoro might be the best one.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pat Narduzzi seeing improvement at cornerback in spring practices

It's spring. There's plenty of optimism surrounding the football program. So yes, I take most of these types of statements with a grain of salt.

"I've been impressed with our corner play so far. We are playing against Jester Weah and Tre Tipton and good receivers. I can't sit there and say, `Man, we are playing against average receivers, I don't know what's going to happen on gameday.' Our corners are playing better right now. We are doing a better job at coaching them and they are doing a better job making plays. I don't see many deep balls being thrown or caught. The ones that we are dropping we have to catch, but we are at least getting pass breakups right now."

Combined with the safety spot, the cornerbacks helped make up one awful secondary last season. By far, it was Pitt's greatest weakness and even competent play there could have resulted in the team winning ten games. As it stood, the Panthers still won eight and that was despite having one of the worst pass defenses in the nation.

The stuff about playing against above average receivers was kind of amusing. No offense at all to a guy like Tre Tipton, of course, but he has 12 career catches. Even Jester Weah, who had a breakout season, and was one of the top deep threats in the ACC last year had mostly modest production (36 catches for 870 yards). Both guys could be pretty good and it can be argued that Weah already is. But I don't know that I'm citing them as a reason why the secondary could struggle in practices.

Pitt, of course, doesn't have their full complement of secondary guys, either. Several players will be arriving in the fall and that will hopefully get more guys in the mix at cornerback.

Like I said, I take statements like this with a grain of salt. But I'm hoping that between getting a little older and playing a little better that the secondary improves. It almost  has to, right?

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt baseball sweeps Virginia Tech for first ACC series win of 2017

After a solid 6-1 start to the season, the Pitt baseball team has been struggling lately. The Panthers dropped games to the likes of Wofford, USC Upstate, Kent State, and Wright State even before they got into ACC play. Since then? They were swept by Louisville and managed to take only one out of three against Notre Dame.

At 1-5 in conference heading into this weekend, they really needed a positive showing. Fortunately, they got it with a sweep of Virginia Tech.  The Panthers were impressive, outscoring the Hokies by a combined 20 runs to nine. That again put the baseball team up over .500 as they currently have an 11-10 record.

Pitt has been plagued for the past several years by plenty of bad losses and this year hasn't been any exception to that. And as we've discussed before, that's made it difficult for the program to make any real progress since the ACC schedule is extremely difficult.

Before the season began, I said that Pitt really needed to get over the hump and produce a record over .500 for the first time as an ACC member. They were close last season, but still fell short at 25-26. At only 11-10 at this point in the year, it will be an uphill battle to get there. But hopefully the series against Virginia Tech provided a bit of a spark.

Next up, Pitt faces West Virginia at home on Tuesday before a road series with Duke over the weekend.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Oakland Zoo t-shirt design bracket contest - Final Four

In honor of this being the 16th year of the Oakland Zoo, we're running a bracket to determine what was the best Oakland Zoo T-Shirt design. Since this is entirely subjective, seeding was based on something objective - total number of wins each season.

We're now down to the Final Four!

You can refer to this tweet from the Oakland Zoo twitter for pictures of all of the designs through the years (this year's version is obviously their current picture). Since we're now down to the last four, I've taken screenshots of the tweet for these four years.

Zoo Twitter Account

And now, the matchups.

Matchup #1
No. 1 (2001-03) vs. No. 5 (2010-11) 2001-03 (57 wins) 2010-11 (28 wins) pollcode.com free polls
Matchup #2
No. 11 (2011-12) vs. No. 2 (2008-09) 2011-12 (22 wins) 2008-09 (31 wins) pollcode.com free polls

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