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Pitt basketball, which doesn’t have a coach, might soon have almost no players

The Panthers are starting over almost entirely.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pitt men’s basketball program is leaderless at the moment. The Panthers made the absolutely correct decision to fire Kevin Stallings after two miserable seasons on the job, which ended in an almost-impossible-to-achieve 0-18 ACC record this year.

Sometime soon, Pitt will have a coach. But he might not have many players. Eight players have asked for releases to transfer and later got them, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported Friday. Those players include leading scorer Parker Stewart and senior forward Ryan Luther, the most experienced player who remained in the program. Another top player, wing Jared Wilson-Frame, got his release on Saturday, Goodman said. That makes nine.

Getting a release and actually transferring aren’t the same thing, and maybe the right hire would keep them around. But no more than six or seven returners can be considered likely members of the next Pitt team. Both of Pitt’s signees in the class of 2018 have reportedly asked for their releases, too.

So, Pitt is starting over. This is just about as complete a teardown of a power-conference basketball program as you’ll ever see. The Panthers are going to begin from scratch, with a new coach leading a roster of almost entirely new players.

The Panthers are doing the right thing.

If players want to transfer, schools should let them transfer. Pitt appears to have learned a lesson after it tried to prevent star forward Cameron Johnson from leaving for North Carolina and playing immediately last offseason. As long as players don’t get paid, it’s really bad when schools try to keep them from learning and playing wherever they want.

Firing Stallings was necessary. While it looks bad that Pitt currently has no coach in addition to almost no players, it’s not going to be hard to upgrade on Stallings. He was a mistake of the highest order. The athletic director who hired him, Scott Barnes, was only at Pitt for 18 months. In that time, he hired a search firm led by his former boss, which recommended hiring Stallings even though Vanderbilt was likely about to fire him. The biggest winner in Pitt hiring Stallings was Vanderbilt, which didn’t have to pay a buyout to fire him.

(Stallings’ hiring came after Barnes lowered the buyout amount for Jamie Dixon, Pitt’s wildly successful coach of 13 seasons, in a classic “I don’t want to break up with you, but it’s fine if you want to break up with me” move. Dixon would leave for his alma mater, TCU, where in two seasons he’s turned a moribund program into an NCAA tournament team. This is all fine.)

Barnes bolted after a year and a half to take the athletic directorship at Oregon State. His replacement, Heather Lyke, is merely cleaning up a mess. Pitt is reportedly trying to pay Stallings less than his full buyout amount of $9.4 million, but that may or may not work.

But the 2018-19 season is going to be incredibly ugly, again.

Pitt was the fifth-least experienced team in Division I this season, according to Ken Pomeroy. The Panthers’ average player had been in college basketball for less than a year. The rotation had six freshmen, and the highest-profile senior was hurt for most of the year. The result was one of the worst ACC teams ever, which went 8-24 in total.

That lack of experience was a byproduct of a mass transfer exodus under Stallings. Pitt lost five transfers after the 2016-17 season and had 11 new players this year. Nine had never played for a Division I program before. And now Pitt seems headed for another season with exceptionally little experience. The new coach will need a lot of patience.

Can Pitt get back to being good? Yeah, probably, but it will take time.

I thought this extended commentary from Jay Wright, Villanova’s national championship head coach, summed up Pitt’s situation well on Wednesday:

There’s no doubt everybody in college basketball thinks this is a great job, and it is a great basketball town. ... I just think it’s the simple process of, you know, a coach leaving, a lot of the players leaving when he leaves, a new coach coming in, bringing in new players. It takes time. If you look at programs in college football and basketball, the programs that have continuity over a long period of time, that’s what — that’s what Ben Howland and Jamie did here for a long — I really think — I think that would have eventually happened, because this is a good basketball town and a good program.

It would have eventually happened, but for whatever reason, it’s none of my business, there was a change. And it’s going to take a little time again, but once you get some continuity here again, you’ve got everything in place here to have a great program.

Pitt’s move to the ACC from the old Big East a couple of years ago has changed things. The ACC is a great basketball league, but it’s been problematic for Pitt on the recruiting trail. For one thing, Pitt now has to play better recruiting teams, like Duke and North Carolina. For another, the ACC isn’t as conducive to pipelines in New York and Philadelphia, two cities where Dixon’s staff pulled great players for years to fuel Pitt’s rise into a national power.

This should be a good job. Pitt plays in a great league and has a nice facility in the Petersen Events Center. Pittsburgh is a passionate sports town, and it’s demonstrated over the years that it will turn out to support a good Pitt team. But the road back to that point is long.