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Thursday January 17 2019
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Pitt's progress is stalling at the wrong time, and it's on coach

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There are idioms out there that can seamlessly describe a situation. For Kevin Stallings, saying that the deck is stacked against him would not be potent enough.

Already dealt a rainbow hand with non-matching digits, the only Ace he had in that five-card toss up just disappeared.

Ryan Luther, who has been the silver-lining on this Panther-bludgeoning season to date—averaging a team-best with 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game—has been sidelined for the foreseeable future with a stress reaction in the senior forward’s third metatarsal of his right foot, which is the same foot Luther had injured last season.

“We are all very used to playing with Ryan most of the time,” said freshman Marcus Carr, who is 12.5 points per game from his guard position—after Pitt’s first game without Luther, a 21-point win over McNeese State.  “It was definitely something to adjust too.”

For a starting lineup that now boasts four freshmen and a JUCO transfer, it certainly does wreak havoc when your only true identity in a senior like Luther is missing in action, though steps in maturation usually yields progress with a green group of guys that are entering their twelfth game of the season. 

The first half against Delaware State was a painting of growth, evolution and maturity Tuesday night. 

Then the final 20 minutes came. 

What was a study of progress lifting off safely to the air turned into a rudderless airplane that lost hydraulics, cabin pressure and engine power as it fell violently to the ground.  Only the clock saved the passengers on the hardwood.

The MEAC’s worst made it a 70-68 deficit with 55 seconds left after a 3-pointer from a name not worth mentioning brought about groans and moans from a humiliating crowd of 2,372 masochists at Petersen Events Center.

The captain of the should-have-been doomed flight gave the worst excuse imaginable after Pitt barely absconded with the 74-68 win over the 351st ranked team in D1 (there are 351 teams in D1.)

“Every game is a learning situation for us, and this is the first time that these guys have had a big lead,” Stallings said after the game.  “It took us four or five games in the season to even have a lead at halftime. Our team is not such that we can take our foot off the gas pedal. That’s not who we are. There is no team in college basketball that we can do that with. It’s nice to have a lead and blitz a team in the first half and if we are lucky to have it again, maybe we will do a better job next time.”

After 12 games together, that answer is nothing more than frivolous nonsense that masks itself as an answer with minimal substance that most in an otherwise ignorant basketball city will consume, and sadly accept.

The truth is what Delaware State Head Coach Keith Walker—who Pitt incidentally made look like John Chaney—explained.

“We kept switching man sets and kept switching zone sets, but when we found one that we thought was working and we sort of stuck with it,” he said.  “Pitt seemed like they had a hard time figuring out our matchup situation.”

Struggling with a 2-11 Delaware State’s junk defense package as a proud ACC member would be like struggling to get past the very first level of Pac-Man.  It doesn’t matter how new to the game you are, the pace should be slow enough for you to figure it out and move on with ease.  Struggling with box-and-one, triangle and diamond looks from a team that lost to Duquesne by 49 points on Dec. 9, and was humiliated by Illinois-Chicago to the tune of 40 points just two weeks prior to that is almost surreal.

With a motion offense, junk defenses in D1 basketball should easily be beaten, especially if you are an ACC opponent facing one of the worst your division has to offer. 

The problem on Tuesday lied within the fact that there was no motion.  There really was no offense in the second half.  Pitt corralled just eight points in the paint in the final 20 minutes, the area which is most vulnerable when facing a junk defense.  The team hurled 19 3-pointers, connecting on just five.  No ball screens set, seldom baseline movement and an utter lack of ball reversals.  The half court offense in the second half was about as bland as a Phish concert.

Delaware State dared the team that ranks 203rd in the nation with just a 34.8% 3-point shooting percentage to chuck them up from beyond-the-arc, leaving the on-ball wing with at least 5-feet of space.  Instead of putting the ball on the floor and penetrating, they did just that.

When you couple in futile rebounding numbers and an inconsistent defensive flow, you can see how Stallings is trying to plug a hole the size of Niagara Falls.

"This is college basketball," concluded Stallings Tuesday night.  "Nothing is going to be easy."

If Tuesday night was any indication of just how difficult things are going to be, we can only imagine the hell that awaits he and his inexperienced squad come ACC play.  

This giant hurdle backwards is a full indictment on Stallings himself.  Even sans Luther, the lack of identity, preparedness, fear of dribble-drive penetration and non-complacency in the half court--those simple basketball plays that most take for granted--is unacceptable when it happens against Delaware State.

These are the darkest days Petersen Events Center has ever seen.  Whether Stallings can find enough light to see his next hand is an inquiry to be answered later, but for right now, the cards tell the tale and coach is folding at the table, not getting the number one job done: progress.

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