PITTSBURGH — For the first time on Thursday, Jeff Capel walked out of the tunnel at Petersen Events Center as the head coach of the Pitt Panthers and took his team out onto the floor, under the lights and played in front of the paying public.
The game was an unofficial one, as Pitt hosted Division-II Pitt-Johnstown in an exhibition, the crowd in the stands was 3,194, and the television play-by-play broadcast tandem of Jeff Hathhorn and Chevon Troutman were doing a dry run, as the game was not broadcast.
But that didn’t stop the 43-year-old Capel from feeling some nerves the first time he took his new team out onto the floor.
“It was great,” Capel said after Pitt’s 78-59 victory. “I was excited, I was nervous, I was anxious — all of those things — headed into this game. Once it got going, you lose yourself into the game.”
That might have been the case with some of Pitt’s players, as well. Five Panthers made their Pitt debuts, including three members of the starting lineup in transfer Malik Ellison and freshmen Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens.
“I was a little nervous,” McGowens said. “It was my first time playing in front of the Oakland Zoo. They told me just to relax.”
Pitt started a bit slow and actually trailed at the first media timeout, but eventually pulled away. The Panthers led by 20 at half time and coasted through a not-particularly-clean second half.
“It was a great learning experience for us,” Capel said. “I thought we did some really good things throughout the game. I thought, at times, our defense was really good. When we talked and we communicated with each other, I thought it was good. We have to continue to work to be better there. I thought that led us to be good at times at the other end.”
OFFENSE INTO DEFENSE
The biggest stylistic difference between the 2018-19 Panthers and last year’s version is certainly their up-tempo transition game.
After every change of possession, Pitt would send two of its four guards on the floor streaking toward the basket, and several times were rewarded with an easy layup. They finished with 21 fast-break points and even when they didn’t score immediately, Pitt was able to keep the ball moving once in the offensive zone and kept the Mountain Cats from ever setting up in their defense.
One of the keys to that effort was the sheer speed of Johnson, who used his quickness to force turnovers and created up-tempo plays for the offense.
“I love to play fast,” Johnson said with a smile. “My speed, getting up and down the floor.”
Johnson played so fast and so hard that he started to cramp up in the second half, which limited him to 20 minutes. But he scored 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and had three assists, which should certainly be seen as a strong positive for the young point guard. Johnson said after the game he felt fine after getting stretched out.
SLASHERS ON THE WING
If Johnson impressed with his horizontal athleticism, fellow freshman McGowens opened eyes with his vertical ability. He’s only 6-foot-3, but he was able to cut from the wing and get above the rim multiple times, including one posterizing dunk in the second half.
With four guards in the offense all stationed outside the 3-point line, Pitt will need slashers to get to the rim in order to keep the offense from being stagnant.
“We can’t be stagnant,” Capel said. “The ball has to be moving and we need to be attacking. I thought at times, we did that today. That’s something that we need to continue to work and get better with.”
McGowens, Khameron Davis, Ellison and Jared Wilson-Frame aren’t the biggest players, but they have to get to the rim to keep Pitt’s offense from relying on perimeter plays. The young McGowens is the least experienced of the four, but impressed on Thursday. He still feels he can be better.
“They help me with reads, we watch film, all of that,” McGowens said. “That’s the biggest thing, watching film [Friday] or Saturday, just breaking it down. I could have made some better reads on kick-outs and gotten to the hoop a couple times.”
Ellison and Wilson-Frame each finished with 14 points, while McGowens had 10. It seems clear that the wings are going to be the focus of Pitt’s offensive efforts this season.
SIDY SENDS IT
Graduate transfer Sidy N’Dir got his first action with the Panthers after coming over from New Mexico, and it was really one of the first opportunities he got to play with the entire team, as he spent much of the last month recovering from an injury.
N’Dir was the first guard off the bench and seemed to do a terrific job of keeping the offense moving. He only attempted two shots, but went 2-for-2 and 1-for-1 from 3-point range, snagged three rebounds and had six assists with just one turnover. He played 17 minutes and Capel said that he had to pull him out at times because N’Dir isn’t really in game shape yet.
“He hasn’t been able to practice much, that’s why it was good to see that from him,” Capel said. “He is a guy that when he has healthy to practice, he’s done that. Our offensive runs a bit smoother. He’s a naturally unselfish guy. He’s a guy that contributes in a lot of ways to helping you win.”
DOWN THE DEPTH CHART
Guard Khameron Davis and forward Terrell Brown were the other members of the starting lineup. Wilson-Frame and Peace Ilegomah were the first two men off the bench, followed by Kene Chukwuka, N’Dir and freshman wing Au’Diese Toney.
There weren’t many surprises in the minutes and playing time. One was Davis starting ahead of Wilson-Frame at wing, though the latter played seven more minutes by the end of the game.
The other was Shamiel Stevenson, who averaged 23.8 minutes per game last season, played just two minutes, the same as walk-on Anthony Starzynski.
He wasn’t injured or sick, that was just the role that Capel and his staff had laid out for him. Pitt’s four-guard, one-forward lineup doesn’t seem to be a particularly good for for his skill set.
“He just played two minutes,” Capel said. “We need everyone on our team, and it’s not just for Shamiel to play with energy every day, to compete every day and to come to work at a high level every day. It’s never about one person. I’m never going to single out or talk about just one person. Shamiel is a talented player and we need him to be a good player for us.”
The attendance of 3,194, while a paltry percentage of Petersen Events Center’s capacity, was actually an improvement over 10 regular-season games a year ago and a sure sign of the enthusiasm in the fanbase surrounding Capel’s hire.
“I’m incredibly appreciate of our students, the Oakland Zoo, of being here,” he said. “You could here them and we need them. We need them in the fight with us.”