STS: This offseason, Jamie Dixon left Pittsburgh to coach at his alma mater, TCU. The Panthers in turn hired Kevin Stalling from Vanderbilt to lead the program. How had that transition gone and what style/strategy difference, if any, have you seen thus far?
CH: Oh man, the Stallings/Dixon debate that has raged on all season long is tiresome. The fan base is pretty split down the middle on the whole basketball program as a whole. I don't think the transition is going very well on and off the court from Dixon to Stallings. To paint a more vivid picture, it goes like this.
Jamie Dixon was the best coach in Pitt history. He made the NCAA Tournament from 11 out of 13 years here at Pitt. Still, he was unquestionably better in the Big East. Pitt was a top 10 type program from 2002-2011. Since then, they've missed the tournament twice and barely made the tournament the other three seasons. So in a sense the fan base got spoiled. Dixon was still doing a fine job as a whole, but he slipped from the really good years. His recruiting got worse, he was thin skinned to the media, and crowds and support slipped.
Enter Kevin Stallings. Nobody really wanted to hire the guy except ex-Athletic Director Scott Barnes. He walked into a situation in which Dixon's poor recruiting left him with a weird roster. While I don't think Pitt is very good, I think they should be better than what they are. Stallings isn't getting enough out of what he has, but I also don't think Dixon didn't leave him all that great of a team.
Long story short, Pitt fans got spoiled from a great run of success. Now they are going to be bitter until that returns, if it ever does. I know that doesn't entirely answer your question, but it paints a picture of how the transition has played out here in Pittsburgh.
STS: What were expectations for the Panthers coming into the season? The media had the Panthers towards the bottom of the conference, was that the consensus over at Cardiac Hill as well? How would you say they've performed relative to those expectations?
CH: I think the general consensus was that Pitt could sneak into the tournament like they did last year. Pitt managed to grab a 10 seed last year, and I think people figured that was attainable again for this season. Pitt has a flawed roster, and they were going from the best coach in school history to an uninspiring hire, so the expectations never got too high. Still, 20-11 in the regular season felt realistic. Pitt had 4 seniors that have played a lot, including two big-time players like Artis and Young. Given those guys returning, being competitive and winning enough to claw into the NCAA Tournament was the expectation.
As far as their performance, it has been a weird season. Pitt holds wins over Virginia and Maryland, two top 25 teams. They really should have beaten Notre Dame as well. But they managed to lose to cross-town rival Duquesne for the first time since 2000. They rarely blew lesser teams out in the non-conference, and they are currently riding a five game losing streak with almost every loss being a blowout. They aren't an overly talented team, and they were picked 12th for a reason, but they still seem to be underacheiving.
STS: Clemson and Pittsburgh have two of the worst defenses in the ACC thus far. The Tigers are great at generating turnovers, but surrender the highest effective FG% when they don't. They also give up a lot of offensive rebounds. What has plagued the Panthers defense?
CH: I'm not sure there is a good answer to this question. Pitt has a number of bad defensive players, and I think it is as simple as that. They just seem to be bad on-ball defenders in general, and allow a lot of drives. They also don't rotate well and allow a lot of open three's. As you all saw, Pitt was embarassed by Louisville on Tuesday night. There was nothing to suggest they had any care in the world to play defense. They may have checked out on the season. A lot of it is effort, and they may not even try to play defense on Saturday.
STS: Since ACC play has started, Pittsburgh has relied heavily on the three-point shot. Meanwhile the Tigers have done a particularly poor job defending the three. Tell us a bit about the shooters for Pittsburgh.
CH: Pitt is a jump shooting team. They are the living embodiment of the old basketball saying, "live by the three, die by the three." Pitt has a very oddly constucted roster, in which they don't have a true point guard or a true center. It's really just five forwards that all can take shots when they need to. Pitt's best three-point shooter is Jamel Artis. He can really go off when his shot is clicking. Just a few games ago, he scored 43 points against Louisville on the road. He made seven outside shots that game. Aside from Artis, Cameron Johnson is their best outside shooting threat. He is a long 6'8" sophomore, and he's really out there as a shooter primarily. That's his best skill. Michael Young and Sheldon Jeter can hit open 3's when they need to as well. Pitt's sixth man, Ryan Luther, is out with a foot injury but is also capable of knocking down outside shots.
STS: Michael Young is averaging 20.7ppg and 7.qrpg. What makes him so special?
CH: Michael Young is a very good senior basketball player. He's been around and has started for four seasons, and he's gotten better each and every year. What makes Young tough too defend is that he can score from all three levels. Young has always had solid moves in the paint. He's able to use both hands so well in the post. He's also very comfortable with his mid-range jumper, and he will shoot them quite a bit. Young has also added the three-point shot this year. He's shooting them at a 39% clip, and is not shy about shooting him.
The one thing that has hurt Young for years now is that he is not a center, yet he plays center on this team. Bigger guys can bother him inside, and force him into being a jump-shooter. While Young is a better outside shooter than in past years, he's staying outside of the post a lot more this season, and his overall shooting percentage has gone down from last season.
STS: Finally, I'll play to my crowd a bit and end with football. Congratulations on doing what Alabama could not (I can actually give you a genuine congratulations since that loss served as a wake up call for the Tigers). With RB Conner and QB Peterman leaving, do you feel Pittsburgh can win what should be a weakened Coastal division?
CH: Not only are Conner and Peterman moving on, they are also losing a lot of other good players like Ejuan Price, Scott Orndoff, Dorian Johnson, and Adam Bisnowaty. Even with all of these losses, Pitt should still have a pretty good team. Pitt will turn to USC transfer Max Browne at quarterback, and his play will be vital to the success this year. There will be six returning starters on the offense total, highlighted by Quadree Henderson at receiver and Brian O'Neill on the line. Both of those players are guys I could see getting some preseason All-American consideration.
The defense was really bad last year, and there may be nowhere to go but up this season. Pat Narduzzi is known as a defensive coach, and his recruiting has been better than his predessor, Paul Chryst. We should start to see some younger guys with upside take over on defense. Jordan Whitehead is one of the best safeties in the country for my money, and he will look to have a big junior year.
There is talent on Pitt's roster. Many of the teams in the Coastal are going through some major changes, so it feels like everyone is on equal footing. Having North Carolina and Miami at home is nice, as is not having to deal with Clemson, Louisville, or Florida State at all. We should find out early how good this team is with early non-conference games against Penn State and Oklahoma State.
STS: A big thank you to Jim Hammett for shedding some light on Pittsburgh athletics. You can follow him on twitter here.