Pitt's marriage with ACC has turned sour in basketball in many ways, for many reasons
February 11, 2017 12:00 AM
Forward Michael Young believes Pitt’s transition to the ACC made it more difficult for coaches to attract the types of players they’ve succeeded with in the past.
By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When it was announced in September 2011 that Pitt was joining the ACC, it was widely seen as a marriage that, if not perfect, was pretty close to it.
With the move, the school was affixing itself to a league with a more lucrative television contract. Its football team would become a part of a conference in which all of its members played the sport. There was, if even from a perception standpoint, more stability. And perhaps most notably, one of the most-storied basketball conferences in the sport now had one of Division I’s best and most consistent brands over the previous decade.
While Pitt has enjoyed many of the expected benefits from the switch from the Big East, one of them hasn’t quite materialized. The ascendant men’s basketball program that helped make the school such an attractive candidate for membership has struggled in its new home.
As the Panthers prepare today for their game against Syracuse, which also announced a move to the ACC 5½ years ago, they do so as a program standing in slight contrast to their opponent. Though the Orange’s success over the years in the Big East largely has translated to the ACC, Pitt’s hasn’t, at least not yet, something that differentiates it from the three other schools that began playing in the conference in the past five years.
Beginning with the 2013-14 season, their first in the ACC, the Panthers have amassed a conference record of 30-35 and a winning percentage of 0.462, by far the worst mark of the four programs that made the switch. Notre Dame, with a win percentage of .576, is the next-closest while Syracuse and Louisville have posted marks of .606 and .660, respectively (unlike the other schools, which are in their fourth year in the league, the Cardinals are in their third in the ACC).
That figure is significantly lower than the .625 figure Pitt recorded in its final four years in the Big East, meaning its in-conference winning percentage has dropped .163 percentage points. None of the three other schools have had a dip lower than .091 percentage points (Notre Dame).
To some, those struggles have more to do with the Panthers’ program itself than any growing pains from the move to a new league.
“This is a Pitt deal,” said Mike DeCourcy, a longtime college basketball writer for The Sporting News. “Their basketball success was more tenuous than any other program in college basketball because what they had constructed was very specific and their challenges were very specific, as well. There are very few cities and regions with as high of a population producing as few high-end basketball prospects as Pittsburgh does. Very few. That becomes a real challenge for you.”
The disparity between Pitt and the three other schools is due in some part to the Panthers’ woeful 2-9 record in ACC games this season. Still, of the four programs, they had the lowest winning percentage entering this season and had only four more wins than a Louisville program that had been in the conference one fewer season.
Additionally, its point differential in conference play the past four seasons has been negative-69, putting it 128 points behind the next-worst team (Notre Dame at 59). Even when taking out this season, which included a 55-point loss to Louisville, it’s in last by 22 points.
The explanations for that disparity vary. For coaches who had to endure it, there were difficult aspects of the transition that affected all schools, not just Pitt.
“The thing you had in the Big East was you had a book on everybody,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “We knew how [former Pitt coach] Jamie Dixon was going to play. We knew how [Georgetown coach] John Thompson was going to play. We knew how [Villanova coach] Jay Wright was going to play over years. Even though you watched the ACC, I think it was a lot of educating yourself and your staff to style of play and then the players. You didn’t know the players as well. You knew the players as they went through the Pitt program or the Georgetown program. You knew them sometimes as good as your own. I think for all of us making the jump into the league, that was the learning curve we had to digest as quickly as possible.”
There were stark differences between the two leagues, sure, but not everyone who had to experience the adjustment believed it was treacherous.
“It wasn’t actually tough at all,” said former Pitt standout Lamar Patterson, who was at the school when it changed conferences. “Everyone kept talking about how high-paced the ACC was going to be, but I actually liked it. I’m not going to say I liked it more than the Big East, but I would say coming from the Big East to the ACC made the game a little easier because the game was so physical night in and night out. The ACC was more of a speed-and-finesse game. It gave us more energy, rather than having to bang with different players every single night. It was simple and easy for me.”
Some of Pitt’s shortcomings began before it officially joined the ACC, as it went 17-19 in its final two seasons in the Big East, due in large part to a 5-13 campaign in 2011-12.
There’s also the multi-faceted issue of recruiting. From a macro standpoint, DeCourcy believes the move to the ACC harmed the Panthers’ ability to attract overlooked and eventually impactful prospects in the Northeast who were allured by the opportunity to play road games close to home and compete in the conference’s end-of-year tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Over the past few years, there was a palpable shift in Pitt’s recruiting efforts toward taller and more versatile players, a trend seen on this season’s team, whose six leading scorers are all at least 6 feet 6. Only 6-11, 300-pound center Rozelle Nix, according to forward Sheldon Jeter, fits the mold of a more traditional Big East player.
The program, in many ways, had to reinvent itself. It’s a ongoing process, particularly with a new coach in Kevin Stallings. And as that change continues, so, too, do some of the lumps that come with it.
“I just think the last coaching staff, I think they did a better job of getting the players they wanted when they were in the Big East,” forward Michael Young said. “I think transferring over to the ACC and then not kind of having a hot start from the beginning, that kind of, I guess, hurt their chances of getting the players that they wanted. So I would attribute it to that.”
Brian Batko contributed to this report. Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.
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