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Kevin Stallings having a nightmare of an offseason for Pitt basketball

With a 16-17 record last year, new Pitt basketball coach Kevin Stallings had a bad season. Unfortunately, so far, he's having an even worse offseason.

Many fans blamed Stallings for a rough year and figured the team should have been more competitive. Some wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and allow him to rebuild. Problem is, that he's having a difficult time even doing that.

It could be argued that Stallings' woes for next season really began during the year with the loss of freshman point guard Justice Kithcart. Kithcart's dismissal, however, was disciplinary-related and, unless the punishment didn't fit the crime, calling Stallings out for that isn't really fair. Unfortunately that was just the beginning.

Most people realized that after such a rough year, Pitt's roster was going to be in for some changes even beyond the guys graduating. That happened relatively quickly. Crisshawn Clark left the team to little fanfare but the departure of true freshman Corey Manigault raised a few more eyebrows simply because of his potential.

Next up was the bombshell, though. Cam Johnson decided enough was enough and, with several high-profile program calling, decided to jump ship. Johnson's loss hurt because he was clearly the team's best player coming back and the only returning starter left. If you're looking for a single event this offseason that caused this snowball to swell to uncontrollable levels, well, that's it.

But while that was the move that really got the angst flowing, it was hardly the end.

One of the team's few bright spots left was the acquisition of Troy Simons earlier this year. Simons was the top JUCO scorer in the nation last season and, while it wasn't clear how good he could be, he at least had the ability to put the ball in the basket. He committed to the Panthers just last month but this week, it was announced that Pitt was no longer pursuing him. The early talk was about a problem with his grades but his coach later took exception to that and said that Pitt was no longer interested in him. Considering that they were as recently as last month, that made a strange situation even stranger.

The most recent domino to fall, of course, was the loss of Aaron Thompson yesterday. Thompson was considered one of the team's better recruits in the group of seven that they had coming in but he was just given a release from his letter of intent indicating he wants to go elsewhere. Like the loss of Johnson, this one seemed odd. Unlike some of the other players that left town, Thompson was Stallings' first recruit. As I said in yesterday's article, his departure signals not only a concern about rebuilding, but rebuilding under Stallings.

Regarding the Thompson stuff, keep in mind the time frame we're talking here. While he committed to the team last May, he signed his Letter of Intent just in November. In other words, he was completely on board with the program and it took him only six months to bail. For what reasons? You'd have to ask him. But that's a horrific look for Stallings who lost the faith of Thompson just like that.

Further compounding the problem is that Pitt has yet to start bringing in grad transfers that they are targeting. The team is still waiting on their first commit there and with at least five open scholarships (there could, after all, be more) it's pretty clear that much of the roster is going to be built on those types of players.

The silver lining here I suppose is that there's still time to assemble a decent roster (well, decent in terms of 'not a complete and utter dumpster fire'). Depending on what grad transfers he gets, the team could even have some solid experience on the roster. But the clock is ticking and there is no group of players that is going to magically transform this squad into a great team.

Stallings had a rocky season in which he lost to Duquesne, openly complained about players to the media on more than one occasion, and missed the postseason altogether. That is starting to pale in comparison to the ridiculous offseason he's having.

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 Basketball Recruiting: Aaron Thompson released from letter of intent with Panthers

Pitt basketball head coach Kevin Stallings came to Pitt with an empty cupboard, according to many of his (dwindling amount of) supporters. That cupboard looks to be nothing compared to the one he has for next season. Aaron Thompson, one of the team's few potential bright spots left says, well, he gone:

The turnover that has decimated Pitt’s roster the past two months has stripped coach Kevin Stallings of his 2016 recruiting class, one he inherited from former coach Jamie Dixon, and his leading returning scorer. Now, that list of past Panthers includes his very first recruit. Guard Aaron Thompson, regarded as one of the top players in Pitt’s 2017 recruiting class, was granted a release from his national letter of intent, the school announced Friday. Thompson committed to the Panthers in May 2016, about five weeks after Stallings was introduced as the program’s new coach.

If you're counting at home, that leaves five open spots on the roster for next year.

Make no mistake here. Thompson is not a five-star recruit and not the kind of guy that was going to save Pitt's 2017-18 season from being a dumpster fire. That was basically sealed with the graduation of four starters and the loss of the fifth, Cam Johnson, to a transfer. But he was touted as a guy that would be a key piece in the team's rebuilding and what shouldn't be lost here is just how ridiculous this is becoming. This was a player that committed to Stallings for crying out loud. A guy that once was sold on what Stallings brought is now jumping ship before he even plays a single game.

The real problem, of course, is not the impact that Thompson would have had on next year's team. As I said, that team wasn't likely to be very good, anyway. The problem is that players cannot seem to run away from Stallings fast enough. I am not going to sit here and theorize about why that is. But with the departure of Cam, the other transfers, and now a Stallings guy in Thompson, it's abundantly clear that guys are very concerned about the prospect of not only rebuilding, but doing so under Stallings. None of that, of course, even addresses the mind-boggling situation the team had with the recent defection of the top JUCO scorer Troy Simons, who all but said Pitt was basically not interested in him anymore.

I mean, what is this?

Cam's departure was a little easier to understand given that his clock is ticking. He has two seasons left and wants to be on a winning team. That wasn't going to be the case next year, meaning he'd really have one chance at that as a senior. But in the case of Thompson, it wreaks of not having confidence that it's going to get better beyond that. Plenty of recruits sign on for rebuilding projects. That Thompson is running away from that is another reason to wonder exactly where all of this is headed.

Pitt basketball is not in good shape right now, folks. Many, in fact, would argue that it's not in good hands, either.

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.

James Conner takes to the Players' Tribune to talk to GMs in advance of the NFL Draft

Like a lot of people, I find the Players' Tribune articles to be pretty interesting for the most part. I don't keep up with the site much but try to check out articles when I can.

Today, Pitt running back James Conner had an entry, pleading his case to general managers as to why they should take him in the upcoming NFL Draft.

It's full of so much good stuff that I don't even want to try to cheapen it by picking out bits and pieces of quotes. The fact is that it's all good. In it, Conner talks about his battle with cancer, the fact that he was only about 60% coming into last season, and his struggle to even become a recognized recruit. Plus, a lot more.

Head over and check it out.

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 women's basketball schedules Backyard Brawl series with West Virginia

The Pitt men's basketball team will face rival West Virginia as part of a four-game series starting in 2017. The women's basketball program is getting in on the act, too.

Pitt announced the Panthers will face the Mountaineers in women's hoops as part of a two-game home and away series. The first game will be on December 7th in Morgantown and Pitt will get the return game in the 2018-19 season.

This type of stuff is good for both schools. While playing the Mountaineers in football every year may not be logistically possible or even that smart given the desire to play Penn State and Notre Dame, among others, there's not much reason the schools shouldn't meet in other sports with more accommodating schedules.

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 AD Heather Lyke offers support for basketball head coach Kevin Stallings

Many fans hoped that new athletics director Heather Lyke might consider a short hook for Pitt basketball coach Kevin Stallings. On the heels of a disappointing 16-17 season, some are hoping that Stallings is on the hot seat.

But Lyke said recently that she is offering her support for Stallings and a quick dismissal doesn't sound like it's happening anytime soon. Well, in terms of an immediate move, anyway. From Jerry DiPaola of the Trib-Review:

"I've had some great conversations with coach Stallings ... I'm excited about working with him." "My biggest question was really finding out what he's about, why he wants to be at Pitt and what's his vision for building this program. And after my conversations with him, I know he wants to be here. I know he's committed to being here, and I'm very confident in his ability to start to build it. "He's got a ways to go, but we need to support him, we all need to get to know him a little bit better and that's what I'm doing right now, spending time getting to know him, figuring out what are the greatest ways that we can support him."

Lyke's job is pretty easy here with regards to Stallings. She isn't going to be judged on Stallings because it wasn't her hire so, in terms of a personal evaluation of her, she doesn't need to move right away on it. The only way she gets tied to him is if he continues to struggle for several seasons and she doesn't make a move or if she offers an extension - neither of which are short-term things.

That said, I'm not sure I would get too comfortable if I were Stallings. There's really not much else she could say at this point and she made it clear that the program isn't in good shape right now by saying the program has a ways to go. She isn't going to come out and say he's on the hot seat, say he's done a poor job, etc. Essentially, this is her saying that she wants to provide Stallings the resources he needs to succeed and is willing to take a wait and see approach - nothing more.

And in that context, it's not surprising that she would make a show of support. Whether or not he would have been her hire is irrelevant. He's the guy that's here and the guy she needs to evaluate going forward.

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 volleyball goes unbeaten in spring tournaments

Volleyball season won't officially be here until the fall, but the Panthers are already working hard to improve upon last year. Like most programs, the team participated in some spring exhibitions. There, the Panthers were mostly dominant.

Pitt went unbeaten playing 12 teams in three events. The team website doesn't have a recap, but the volleyball Twitter account did a great job posting results.

The matches are basically exhibitions and instead of a best of five situation. In the first event, teams simply played two sets and moved on. Thus, it was easy to end up with some ties. Many of the schools were smaller ones but Pitt also faced some larger ones, including West Virginia, Purdue, and Indiana.

The team started off by defeating Ohio in the Indy College Invitational, winning both sets. They split with Indiana and Ball State before sweeping Purdue. After that event, the team was 2-0-2.

The following weekend at the Youngstown State Invitational, Pitt defeated Duquesne, Wheeling Jesuit, West Virginia, and Akron to move to 6-0-2.

The third event was a Pitt-hosted tournament at the Field House this past weekend. Unfortunately, it was the same date as the spring football game. But there, Pitt again had an easy time of things, sweeping Cleveland State, West Virginia (again), Youngstown State, and Miami of Ohio in straight sets. Add it all up and the Panthers finished 10-0-2 in the three spring tournaments.

The Panthers had a good season last year, finishing 25-9. That was capped by not only reaching the NCAA Tournament, but moving on to the second round before falling to heavily-favored Penn State. This year's team will be without the recently departed Jenna Potts, but returns practically everyone else.

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 tops Penn State, sweeps Nittany Lions in 2017

The Pitt baseball team has been an up and down squad this year. That's evident by their 16-17 record. But one thing the team has managed to do is beat Penn State.

The Panthers defeated the Nittany Lions 9-1 on Tuesday. That, combined with their 3-2 win against Penn State a couple of weeks ago, gave them a 2-0 series sweep for 2017.

Unlike that first game that was close, this one was a rout. Pitt posted runs in five of the first six innings to grab a 9-0 lead and the Nittany Lions' lone run came in the ninth. Penn State did hit Pitt's pitchers around a bit. In fact, they collected more hits than Pitt (10-8) and got a hit in eight of their nine innings. But the Panthers were able to keep the from scoring and with the fast start, cruised to an easy win.

After a game against Kent State on Wednesday, Pitt hosts North Carolina in a series this 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.

Pitt wrestling to host 2019 national championships

Pitt wrestling has been in the national news a bit lately with the recent hire of new wrestling coach in alum Keith Gavin. On Tuesday, they got some big news in that the program will also host the 2019 NCAA wrestling championships from March 21-23.

The event is a major grab for the program and it's been 60 years since they last hosted it. Back in 1957, it was in the tiny Fitzgerald Field House.

While the Panthers will be the host, it won't be on campus. The event will be down at the PPG Paints Arena. The Arena is playing host to quite a few championships in the upcoming years as also recently announced:

  • NCAA Men's Basketball first two rounds hosted by Duquesne (March 2018)
  • NCAA Wrestling Championships hosted by Pitt (March 2019)
  • NCAA Women's Volleyball championship hosted by Duquesne (December 2019)
  • NCAA Men's Hockey Frozen Four hosted by Robert Morris (April 2021)
  • NCAA Men's Basketball first two rounds hosted by Duquesne (March 2022)
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.

Troy Simons signs with New Mexico as Pitt situation becomes murkier with recent coach comments

Last week, news dropped that Pitt was no longer going to be including JUCO player Troy Simons in its plans for next season. Simons was the top JUCO scorer and could have been a decent addition to next year's squad, given that it's going to be a very young team.

While academics were believed to be at fault, though, Simons' coach says that wasn't the problem. Rather, the issue (according to him) was that Pitt wasn't interested:

Furjanic, a Rankin native who formerly coached at Robert Morris and Pitt-Greensburg, said Simons is on track to graduate by June 20. “Because Pitt didn't offer him a visit or a letter of intent, I felt it was in his best interests to look at other options because Pitt is making no attempt to sign him,” Furjanic said.

As I wrote in the initial article that Simons wasn't coming here, he was going to be visiting New Mexico. They wasted no time and have already signed him.

Excited to announce the signing of Troy Simons for 2017-18! Welcome to the Lobo Family, Troy! #GoLobos — Lobo Basketball (@UNMHoops) April 17, 2017

An Albuquerque Journal writer also spoke with Simons, who debunked the academics stuff.

.@ImUpNext3 Troy Simons said decommit from Pitt is not academics as a Pittsburgh paper cited from "source." Said it was lack of communication w/ coaches — Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) April 17, 2017

Per that earlier Trib-Review link, all of this seems to stem from the fact that Pitt would not give him a visit or letter of intent because they don't do that with JUCO players until they graduate(?)

Chas over at Pitt Blather states that Simons' primary recruiter here was Jeremy Ballard, who you might remember, recently headed to VCU.

It's hard to know what to make of all of this. Pitt not only still has room for Simons, but without him, they actually have four open slots left. And that assumes that Rozelle Nix and Jonathan Milligan both make it back for next year. At this point, I'm not sure how much quality is out there to be had and if grades aren't the issue here, the top JUCO scorer seems like he might have been some help.

We might never get an answer as to the grades thing but if he's academically eligible and able to play at New Mexico, there will be a lot of head-scratching from Pitt fans. If Stallings truly doesn't believe he would be able to help the team, I'm fine with cutting ties. As I've said over and over, a coach has to have the kind of leeway to make decisions and bring his own players in. But given the number of open roster spots available and the fact that the primary recruiting time has passed, it makes you wonder how the Panthers will fill all of this open space.

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.

Gold beats Blue 23-14 in the Spring Game

Gold team wins the Spring Game

Pitt held their annual Blue and Gold Game Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field. The Gold team raced out to a quick 17-0 lead and held off a fourth quarter rally by the blue team for the 23-14 victory.

Now to recap a Spring game, you have to truly appreciate what a Spring game is. The offense is typically bland, defenders play hard but not urgent, and of course many guys are missing from injury. It’s a glorified scrimmage open to the fans - that’s about it.

Overall it was a good day for the program, Pitt attracted 7,706 on a nice sunny afternoon. They also brought back former stars Tyler Boyd and Jabaal Sheard to captain the teams. Larry Fitzgerald and Tyler Palko, among other past players were also there in attendance. A number of key recruits showed up as well, it was a productive day for Pitt football.

Now for the game itself. It wasn’t always pretty, but there were a few different things we saw that we notable. I’ll start with the quarterback play. Max Browne wasn’t very impressive as he led the Blue team. Still, it would be a surprise if he was not the starter come September. His throws came up short more than a few times. A flea-flicker to open the game came with a pretty severe under throw. Arm strength is somewhat of question for me moving forward with Browne. However, he does appear to be pretty poised and confident, just like a senior quarterback should look. The final drive of the game was capped off with a 27 yard touchdown pass from Browne to Tre Tipton in the back of the end zone on a nice throw.

The other Blue quarterback was Tom MacVittie, and he completed just 1-1 passes for four yards. He seemed to be flushed from the pocket a bit, and never had the chance to stand in and make some throws. He did rush for a 12 yard touchdown in the third quarter showing some mobility.

The Gold team saw about equal snaps given to Ben DiNucci and true freshman Kenny Pickett. DiNucci was 5-5 for 60 yards on the day, while Pickett 6-13 for 36 yards. Pickett also rushed for 35 yards. I came away very impressed with Pickett. He’s much faster than I anticipated and actually has some running skills, and he looks comfortable extending plays and throwing on the run. Just didn’t expect that from a true freshman, but he impressed.

Pat Narduzzi commented on his young quarterbacks play on Saturday, “ To be able to turn those guys lose - some of the best quarterbacks we’ve ever had – really showed when it was live. You watch Kenny scrambling, Thomas scored a rushing touchdown, so it was nice to see those young guys get an opportunity to go out and do something and try and manage the game that way.”

Now onto the rest of the offense, and I’ll start with the running backs. Qadree Ollison and Chawntez Moss were the only scholarship backs available with Darrin Hall recovering from a surgery. Moss was clearly the more effective player, netting 57 yards on eight carries. Ollison had a tough time, and averaged just 1.3 yards per carry on 18 attempts. This will be a race to watch in Fall camp, as true freshmen Todd Sibley and AJ Davis should push for carries.

There wasn’t much to see from the tight ends, as the roster just doesn’t have many at the moment. Chris Clark sat out and they have three freshman coming for next season. It was also strange to see George Aston not touch the ball once after being one of Pitt’s best weapons last season. I’m not reading much into it, but with a new offensive coordinator in Shawn Watson, I was curious how tight ends and fullbacks would be used.

The wide receivers looked good, but inconsistent. They made some really good players, but there were plenty of easy drops mixed in as well. Quadree Henderson was fantastic on Saturday, as he rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for 53 yards. It’s hard to imagine Henderson not being in the top 3 in the country this season in all-purpose yardage.

Aside from Henderson, Maurice Ffrench, Ruben Flowers III, and Tre Tipton stood out, and they did have the benefit from playing with Browne on the Blue team. Flowers III looked good after taking a redshirt last season. Jester Weah was really quiet hauling in just one catch for nine yards.

The offensive line was split up, and that’s a unit that works better when all five guys are working together. Brian O’Neill came up hurt in the second half, but it wasn’t anything major. Being a potential All-American, Pitt really needs to keep him healthy. Also noteworthy, true freshman Jerry Drake is a very big guy, he stands out even among the other linemen.

Now moving to defense, and one of Pitt’s biggest priorities is finding a pass rush without Ejuan Price. Top candidate Dewayne Hendrix did not dress. Other presumed starter Rori Blair looked good, as he notched two sacks. Allen Edwards got one too. He’s expected to be right in the mix for yards. Still, I have to say the redshirt freshman really impressed. Rashad Weaver had a sack and another tackle for loss, and provided pressure on numerous occasions. Kaezon Pugh looked good for just moving to end, and Patrick Jones II looked the part physically.

We did not see much out of the interior linemen. It was a quiet day for them, redshirt freshman Keyshon Camp came up hurt on one play in the second half, but other than that we did not hear much from the position.

Pitt is starting out fresh at linebacker and these young players are starting to look like they can be real quality players. I could see a potential starting lineup of Quintin Wirginis, Saleem Brightwell, and Elijah Zeise. Actually, Zeise did not not suit up Saturday, but won the Ed Conway award for his work this Spring as the most improved player. It could be a much more athletic linebacking corps than in previous years. Chase Pine also looks like he can see the field, the redshirt freshman is 6’2” 250 and can really move.

Jordan Whitehead and Bricen Garner manned the safety spots for the Gold, while Jay Stocker, Henry Miller, and Dennis Briggs held down the Blue team. Stocker led all players with 7 tackles. Whitehead showed no ill-effects from his injury last season, and I thought Bricen Garner did some good things. Henry Miller is a very big guy and made a few nice plays as well. Now remember, Pitt has Paris Ford coming in for next season, and he will change the dynamic entirely of this position.

And of course, now for the cornerbacks. This unit took a beating last year, and hopefully some fresh faces help out. Avonte Maddox was undoubtedly the best corner yesterday and will be the #1 guy in Fall. He broke up two passes, and recorded 3 tackles. Therran Coleman worked opposite of Maddox, and I have hope he can be an effective player soon. Dane Jackson and Phillipie Motley started for the Blue team, and I liked Dane Jackson’s play. He can be a factor. Also something to consider, Damar Hamlin did not play and he will be expected to push for a starting job if he can stay healthy.

New kicker Alex Kessman was 3-4 on field goal attempts, making three from inside of 40. He attempted a 60 yarder to end the first half and it missed very far wide right, but he had enough leg, and that was impressive enough.

That’s the rundown. Now recruiting should take center stage for the football program. Pitt typically does well in May and June, and we should start seeing some commitments. The team will reconvene in August for Fall camp.

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