PITTSBURGH — There are probably two schools of thought when it comes to evaluating the NCAA debut of Pitt freshman shooting guard Trey McGowens in the Panthers’ 69-53 win over Youngstown State on Tuesday.
On one hand, McGowens scored a game-high 17 points, made a bunch of athletic plays driving to the rim, a few thunderous dunks, and at times, looked every bit like the Top-100 prospect he was touted to be.
On the other hand, McGowens turned the ball over seven times, missed all three of his 3-point attempts, and shot in the 30-percent range in the first half.
Many coaches would never have given McGowens the opportunity to become the game’s leading score by playing him 17 more minutes in the second half after the way the first 17 minutes with in the first half.
Jeff Capel is not one of those coaches.
He said after the game that as long as players with the proper amount of effort on both sides of the ball, he can live with, and is expecting, some mistakes from his three freshmen.
“I think if you are going to allow guys to have freedom then you have to allow them to make mistakes as long as their mistakes are them going hard,” Capel said. “There’s not a perfect player, and our game is not perfect, but what should be perfect is our effort and how hard we play. We certainly made some mistakes and those guys did, but it was not just the freshmen, it was all of us – including me. Those guys were playing hard and you allow them to grow, you allow them to fix it, you allow them to learn from it. That has been my thing – as long as guys are playing hard and competing and getting after it you have an opportunity to play. The guys that did and who played today are the guys who earned it.”
There’s a lot of coaches that will say that. It’s an entirely different thing to watch it happen in practice, as Capel sat — yes, sat — on the Pitt bench and watched his freshman guards struggle at times, and you can lump point guard Xavier Johnson and wing Au’Diese Toney in with McGowens in that regard.
Capel seems to have a keen awareness of what it takes to get the best out of his talented players. That is going to include freedom, particularly on offense. He knows he has to give up some of that control in order to get young players to buy in. The only thing he seems to be the mandate is equal effort when it comes to rebounding and defense.
“To have four new guys wearing a Pitt jersey for the first time in a real game and come out and perform that way on the defensive end was big time,” Capel said. “We knew that Youngstown State was going to shoot a lot of threes. Our preparation for this game was three point defense and long rebounds. We knew with them shooting a lot of threes that we could turn those misses into offense, and I thought we did that.”
BIG MAN BATTLE
If Capel doesn’t get that effort on the glass and on defense, he doesn’t seem particularly shy about pulling the hook on a player.
He is playing a four-guard offense, meaning there is only a spot for one forward to play at a time.
Coming in to the game, it looked like that would probably be sophomore Terrell Brown. But after Brown had a forgettable first half, Capel decided to go to Kene Chukwuka for the second half.
Chukwuka probably does not have the same level of ability as Brown, but what he does have is energy and toughness. Chukwuka is a fearless rebounder and hustles back on defense. Capel attributed his team’s better second half (they led by just three at the break) to the big man from Sweden.
“The guy I thought the guy that really changed the game was Kene,” Capel said. “We decided to start him the second half because he rebounded in the first half and he gave an energy. That is who Kene has been since I have been here and he earned the right to start in the second half. I thought his energy on both ends of the court really helped us break the game open.”
It seems that this is going to be a playing time battle that should continue for some time, and don’t discount Peace Ilegomah, either, who looked much improved from last season, as well.
Senior wing Jared Wilson-Frame was suspended for the game, and his absence was certainly felt for the Panthers, especially on offense.
A typical four-guard offense has the tendency to do a lot of passing the ball around the perimeter, looking for open threes.
That doesn’t seem to be the case with the Panthers, who relentlessly drove to the rim on Tuesday. In fact, they only attempted 11 three point shots and only made two.
Meanwhile, they scored 48 points in the paint. That ratio isn’t sustainable long-term, but thankfully, neither is Wilson-Frame’s suspension. He should return Friday against VMI, and his presents as a willing and capable 3-point shooter should help balance the Pitt offense.
With Wilson-Frame out, Toney drew into his spot in the starting lineup. The true freshman had the toughest battle for playing time of Pitt’s three youngsters, with Malik Ellison finally eligible and Wilson-Frame and Shamiel Stevenson returning for the Panthers.
Capel said that Toney earned his spot with toughness and intensity on the boards in practice. The 6-foot-6 wing led Pitt with nine rebounds.
“He’s a bigger body,” Capel said. “He’s a guy that can defend multiple positions. He’s been one of our best rebounders in practice every day and he’s been one of our best defenders in practice.”
ODD MAN OUT?
Toney’s ascendance has meant limited playing time for Stevenson, who played just six minutes on Tuesday after playing only two in Pitt’s exhibition. Capel complimented his play in that time, but it’s clear that he’s behind the other three wings in the pecking order and that playing time might be tough to come by for the athletic wing who showed raw promise as a freshman in 2017-18.