In advance of its home game against No. 18 West Virginia this weekend, Pittsburgh sits at 5-4 on the season. The Panthers have lost at home to Montana, on the road to Navy and most recently needed overtime to prevail against Mount St. Mary's at the Petersen Events Center.
Most tellingly, perhaps, Pitt has, in effect, played a rather forgiving nonconference schedule to a draw. The 5-4 record includes a 1-1 mark in overtime games. The Panthers have scored 640 points on the season, and allowed 647. And all of this has come against a schedule that Ken Pomeroy rates as merely the 254th most challenging such slate in Division I.
Yes, Kevin Stallings' team has now won four in a row, with victories over Lehigh, High Point, Duquesne and MSM. So far, however, the program's fans appear unimpressed by the win streak or the schedule or both. The announced attendance for the game against the Mountaineers was 2,333.
It didn't used to be like this in Pittsburgh. Think back about a decade-and-a-half.
Pitt's glory days were not so long ago
In his third season at the helm, Ben Howland got Pittsburgh to the 2002 NCAA tournament. It was the Panthers' first bid in nine years, but it marked the beginning of a run under Howland and his assistant and successor, Jamie Dixon, where Pitt played in 13 NCAA tournaments over a period of 15 years. The Panthers earned a No. 1 seed as recently as the 2011 NCAA tournament.
After that star turn on the top seed line, however, the program's fortunes seemed to shift. During the next five seasons under Dixon, Pitt won a single NCAA tournament game in three appearances. Dixon left after the 2015-16 season to take the reins at his alma mater, TCU, and Pittsburgh hired longtime Vanderbilt head coach Stallings.
In his first season, Stallings could at least count on the offensive production of seniors like Michael Young and Jamel Artis. True, that production wasn't enough to prevent Pitt from going 4-14 in ACC play, but the Panthers were at least sporadically respectable, taking Virginia to overtime, playing both Louisville and eventual national champion North Carolina into the 40th minute on the road and beating Florida State (which would earn a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament) with surprising ease.
A rotation almost as inexperienced as Kentucky's
This season, however, Young and Artis are gone and Cameron Johnson elected to transfer to in-conference rival UNC in the offseason. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that in the preseason, I ranked this roster as having slightly more returning experience than Kentucky -- but only slightly.
Now Stallings is relying on former reserve Ryan Luther, junior college transfer Jared Wilson-Frame and freshmen like Marcus Carr and Shamiel Stevenson. Maybe there aren't many household names on the roster, but I'll say this for Stallings. These guys actually shoot the ball fairly well.
The problem this season has been simply that Pitt doesn't get enough chances to shoot. The Panthers are giving the ball away on 21 percent of their possessions, and opponents (with a much lower turnover rate and a much higher offensive rebound percentage than Pittsburgh's) are outscoring Stallings' men through sheer volume.
If you're looking for any good news to find in a 5-4 start against a not very challenging schedule, it's that Pitt does show clear potential for improvement next season. Stallings, in effect, plays an eight-man rotation with just two seniors. St. John's transfer Malik Ellison will be eligible next season, and 2018 signee Bryce Golden is ranked the No. 29 power forward in the country by ESPN.
The question is how much improvement is over the horizon at Pitt, both this season and next. As a program, the Panthers haven't signed a top-100 recruit since the aforementioned Michael Young hit campus in the fall of 2013. For his part, Stallings has been to the NCAA tournament once in the past five years -- with Vanderbilt in 2016 -- and he hasn't won a game there since March 15, 2012.
The uniqueness of Pitt's plight
Granted, major-conference programs suffer Pittsburgh-level struggles every day of the week, historically speaking. Actually, DePaul and Washington State have both been in roughly this same "major conference, struggling team" predicament in each of the past five seasons.
But what's different about the Panthers, of course, is that they've tasted considerable programmatic success in the very recent past. We're talking about a team that has won 16 NCAA tournament games since 2000, and this, more than anything else, is what separates the optics of struggling Pitt from the more durable travails of the Blue Demons or the Cougars.
With the notable exception of its storied 1941 Final Four team, Pittsburgh as a program never tasted much basketball success until the Howland-Dixon period spanning roughly 2002 to 2011. Now, the Panthers are trying to recapture that level of success, and doing so in a dog-eat-dog 15-team ACC. Can Stallings get them there? We've never had to ask so unexpected a question about a program that was so good so recently.