CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Scattered across tables on the second floor of the Ritz Carlton in uptown Charlotte were three-sided, upright placards that were less decoration and more an omnipresent reminder of the challenges Kevin Stallings faces at a new school and in a new league.
Stallings has coached major-conference college basketball since the end of the Bill Clinton administration, but as he prepares for his first season at Pitt, the obstacles awaiting him are perhaps unlike any he has faced in his career.
"The most daunting thing is that it's probably the best league or has the potential to be the best league in history in college basketball, perhaps," Stallings said when asked about the most daunting aspect of the conference. "That's daunting. What's daunting is I could have a really good team and play a really good game and get beat. That's daunting. One of these guys isn't going to be outcoached. You better figure out a way to outplay them because they're not going to get outcoached. That's daunting.
"It's an exciting challenge, too, because we're paid to win. We're going to have to figure out how we can get that done. It's an exciting challenge, but it's intimidating at best and scary at worst is probably how I would describe it."
Though he was in the Southeastern Conference at Vanderbilt for the past 17 seasons, Stallings, from a distance, knew the ACC well and the most prominent faces who comprise it.
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He coached under North Carolina's Roy Williams for five years at Kansas. He used to make the three-hour trek from Nashville to Louisville to watch Rick Pitino conduct practices. He even once attended an Eagles concert at Soldier Field in Chicago with Virginia Tech's Buzz Williams.
That personal familiarity, however, can only provide so much help in what will be a sizable and even drastic step up in competition. Stallings inherits a program that has the lowest in-conference winning percentage (.519) of the four schools that have joined the ACC since 2013, a group that also includes Louisville (.667), Syracuse (.593) and Notre Dame (.574). In the past three seasons, 16 ACC teams have been ranked in the final poll of the season, more than double the number the SEC (seven) has produced in that time. This season might be the ACC's most gruesomely competitive in some time, with five teams appearing in the top 12 of statistician Ken Pomeroy's preseason projections.
That change in conference has produced something of an educational process. When Stallings arrived at Pitt and began holding meetings almost weekly with his four seniors, he would ask questions about the ACC, from what the various arenas were like to how much physicality referees tolerate.
Stylistically, the differences Stallings has noticed between the SEC and ACC have been negligible, though he noted there's a wider variety of defenses in his new league. Pitt senior Sheldon Jeter, who played one season in the SEC at Vanderbilt, has witnessed some key distinctions, namely that the ACC doesn't have the kind of big men that could double as football walk-ons that he said he encountered in the SEC.
"It combines a lot more strength and athleticism, where in the SEC, I remember it being a lot about brute strength and there always being one prolific scorer," Jeter said. "In the ACC, you can have three or four prolific scorers on a team."
As notable as the overall quality of the ACC is its depth. There are projections that have as many as 11 teams from the conference making the NCAA tournament this season, which would tie a record set by the Big East in 2011. Stallings comes from a league largely dominated over the past 15 years by two schools, Kentucky and Florida, with his Vanderbilt teams and some of Bruce Pearl's Tennessee squads occasionally thrusting themselves among the conference's elite.
While some are bullish on Pitt's chances this season -- Jeter said he believes the Panthers can finish in the top three of the league standings -- the ACC's top tier gives most anyone, even someone returning four senior starters, pause.
"I don't know if it's the bottom that makes the league better or if it's just there isn't much of a bottom," Stallings said. "But I know one thing -- there's no better league at the top. That's for sure."
This article was written by Craig Meyer from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.