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Pitt’s Stallings hopes players look past trying season toward better life

Jerry DiPaola
ptrpittuva17010517
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings gives it to the referees against Virginia in the second half Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017 at the Petersen Events Center.

When this season ends, Pitt coach Kevin Stallings wants to be known as more than the guy who drew up out-of-bounds plays or called out defenses.

He hopes when others reflect on his 24th season as a college coach — his first at Pitt — he isn’t remembered as someone who kicked a player off the team and punished two seniors for being late to a meeting.

When the basketballs are finally put away, he hopes he’s shown his players the way toward a good life, if not a winning season.

Stallings will lead Pitt (15-16) into the ACC Tournament against Georgia Tech on Tuesday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., looking for a victory. But the greater goal is finding something more important than a final score amid the ashes of the Panthers’ first losing regular season in 17 years.

Stallings said he often speaks to his players about more than basketball, which made it so troublesome for him to dismiss freshman Justice Kithcart and bench seniors Michael Young and Jamel Artis within 24 hours last week.

Young and Artis, the team’s leading scorers, were punished for being 10 minutes late to a pregame meeting.

“My job is to uphold the integrity of the process of coaching this team,” Stallings said.

Senior Sheldon Jeter said he agreed with Stallings making his teammates accountable for their actions.

Asked if his coach acted appropriately, Jeter said, “I think so. I think so. He’s been doing it all year, really, as far as punishing guys when they don’t do what they’re supposed to. It’s nothing new. He just wants to show there’s no exceptions to it.”

Stallings said he has spoken to Young and Artis “probably more than anyone about the life lessons aspect of coaching them and being successful as a human being and when basketball is over.

“Whether it’s being on time or how you interface with other people, because I would like to think that what I’m doing is more than just coaching basketball. I hope the impact I’m having on these kids’ lives is bigger and better than just coaching the game and helping them achieve wins or losses.”

Stallings hasn’t had much experience with losing teams. In his first 23 years as coach at Illinois State and Vanderbilt, his teams had three losing records (none in the first nine seasons).

But the group he inherited from Jamie Dixon has presented special problems he probably didn’t expect with four senior starters — Young, Artis, Jeter and Chris Jones.

“I think we’ve continued to play hard, but I think there’s a difference between playing hard and really preparing to win,” he said. “In those instances where we haven’t played well, I wouldn’t say that we’ve been preparing to win. I think we go out and play reasonably hard in the game, but our preparation sort of affects what we’re able to do on the court because you can’t be one thing in practice and something completely different in the game on a consistent basis.”

The result is a 4-14 ACC record — the fewest conference victories by a Pitt team in 40 years — and what Stallings admits is a decrease in the players’ overall level of confidence.

“Losing is de-motivating. That takes away some of your spirit,” he said.

Yet, Stallings said he saw no falloff in effort during practice Sunday, a day after the 67-42 loss to Virginia where Young and Artis were told to sit out the first 10 minutes.

“They were fine at practice,” he said. “I certainly didn’t take the time to ask them (how they handled being benched). It’s pretty clear-cut.

“We let the guys know where they stand relative to what the expectations of the program are. I don’t think either one of them was surprised, maybe they were, but I didn’t ask them. I just did what I’m supposed to do.”

Stallings acknowledged he made mistakes this season and he would make some minor changes, if given a second chance.

“But not that many, surprisingly for me,” he said. “I’m not satisfied with the record. I’m not satisfied with some of the dysfunction, maybe, that we’ve had.

“But I’m satisfied with how I’ve tried to coach and educate and lead these guys.”

Notes: Pitt will join Penn State, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M in the field for the 2017 Legends Classic that will end with championship rounds Nov. 20-21 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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