Someday, Kevin Stallings might be able to sit back and have a good, hearty chuckle when he reflects on how he and the Pitt coaching staff built virtually an entire college basketball roster virtually from scratch.
Someday. But not today. Today, the stress that came with piling three years of recruiting into one year, as Stallings put it Thursday, is still too fresh, too present in memories to evoke a smile or even a relieved grin.
Rather, it evokes thoughts of a career change for the second-year Pitt coach.
“I will retire before I have another 11-player class, because if I don’t, I’ll die,” Stallings said Thursday. “This recruiting year was the most difficult - it’s literally over three years of recruiting in about 15 months. One of these days, I’ll look back and really, really wonder how we did it, because it was incredibly difficult and I just never heard of anybody having to sign 11 players before, especially at this level.
“So it was quite hard, but we’re thrilled with the result. I’m thrilled with these guys that we have.”
And that’s where the stress turns to smiles. Because, for all the great lengths Stallings and company went to in order to fill a roster for the 2017-18 season with just two returning scholarship players, the coach of the Panthers seems to be genuinely pleased with the team he’ll be leading this fall.
“If you would have told me what the task was a year ago at this time and told me what I was really going to have to do, I wouldn’t have had any hope that it would have ended up as good as it did,” Stallings said. “My staff did a great job through the summer.”
The recruiting class started coming together last May when Stallings landed three-star guard Aaron Thompson as his first commitment. Four months later, forward Terrell Brown joined the class, followed by guards Marcus Carr and Jared Wilson-Frame last October. Pitt added a forward in Shamiel Stevenson in January and a center in Peace Illegomah in February, and in May, two transfers - Monty Boykins from Lafayette and Malik Ellison from St. John’s - chose Pitt as their next landing spot, as did guard Khameron Davis.
But before Boykins and Ellison and Davis announced their commitments, Pitt’s list was trimmed a bit in April when Thompson was released from his Letter of Intent, and one-time commit Troy Simons also backed off from the Panthers that month, creating more space for Stallings to fill.
“It was a tall task because it felt like we had to keep recruiting; even when we would sign one, it felt like we needed two more,” he said.
So the coaches stayed active on the recruiting trail. In June they landed shooting guard Parker Stewart and center Samson George. And finally, the staff found and grabbed forward Kene Chukwuka.
From Brown’s commitment in September to Chukwuka’s pledge the following August, Stallings and company had added 11 players to the roster - roughly one per month. And the coaches had done it by searching all avenues. They brought in high school players (seven of them), junior college players (two of them), a regular transfer and a graduate transfer.
“We’ve had to do some unconventional recruiting because of the sheer numbers of what we’ve been forced to do,” Stallings said. “I kind of consider myself an outside-the-box thinker when it comes to recruiting anyway; I’ve never really had a job where I could be the best team in my league by strictly recruiting high school guys. So that made me think outside the box: foreign kids, prep school kids, transfers…
“So we have an approach that encompasses literally anything that we think needs to be done - junior colleges or whatever the case might be - and that will be how we continue to go. Now, we would love to get it to where it was two or three high school players a year that we need, but until we get it up and running, we have to be more - I don’t want to say unconventional, but we have to be more outside the box.”
Now the heavy lifting of recruiting is over. The 11 newcomers are on campus and practicing with the team, and while this part of the process brings with it a whole host of challenges as the coaching staff tries to get the players ready for the season, which tips off in a little more than a month at Navy on Nov. 10, Stallings said he likes the results so far.
“I’m very, very encouraged with what I see. I don’t know where our talent level will rank in this unbelievably tough conference, but I’ve got a feeling that our effort level and our toughness level will be pretty good. That at least gives me some confidence and some peace at night, because whatever we’re short on, I think we’re going to be long on how hard we play and the kind of physicality we play with.”