With first-year head coach Jeff Capel, there almost are no expectations for what he can do with a group that finished winless in the ACC last season and brought back few starters. Capel has started three first-year players in the first three games and has only played one senior in his nine-man rotation, Jared Wilson-Frame.
Wilson-Frame was suspended for the team’s opener and has been eased into play by coming off the bench. However, over the past two games post-suspension he has led the team in scoring. His 6-10 night from three-point range totaled 24 points and gave Pitt the boost they needed to move past an upper tier mid-major program in Troy.
“He was the difference in the game,” Troy head coach Phil Cunningham admitted. “In the first half, he flipped momentum and in the second half for sure we were struggling with it.”
Pitt did a strong job of using the pick and roll with their centers to set up more three-point shots in the second half, and the result was a team who pulled away and led by double digits for a good portion of the second half.
“[Wilson-Frame] trusts that if he is open, and if we do all of the other things the right way, the ball will find him,” head coach Jeff Capel mentioned.
“I know if I have an open shot, that coach wants me to take it, and I know I am a good shooter, so if I don’t take them, coach is going to let me know,” added Wilson-Frame.
The reason Capel has made the light so green for Wilson-Frame is because Capel is struggling to get the deep ball from anyone else. Wilson-Frame led the team in three-pointers made coming into the game despite the suspension and coming off of the bench. He is now carrying the team in that area.
This season Wilson-Frame is 11 of 29 from three. The rest of the team is 14 of 44 from three. They were 4-17 without him. The old phrase “live by the three, die by the three” could turn into “live by Wilson-Frame, die by Wilson-Frame” if someone else does not step up as competition gets tougher.
As for his role coming off the bench, do not expect Jared Wilson-Frame to be named the sixth-man of the year this season. His stint off of the bench may end soon. Wilson-Frame checked into the game before the under 16 timeout and played 30 minutes.
“He’s been good in that role,” Capel said. “That doesn’t mean that is going to be his role moving forward, but it has been good for us.”
X Gon Give it to ya
The young Pitt Panthers may need some help with the three-point ball, but Wilson-Frame may get some help in maturity and leadership from freshman Xavier Johnson. Xavier Johnson leads the 3-0 Panthers in minutes, shots, and points.
On Monday, he almost put together a triple-double, with seven rebounds and nine assists. And if not for a rimmed out three by Wilson-Frame he would have had his 10th assist and a double-double.
On top of that, he is giving the team an identity on defense. Johnson drew a charge early into the game. He pressed and forced a turnover as well. Johnson always looks to push the ball up the court and get the offense into transition after his defensive play.
“We thought he’d be good right away,” said Jeff Capel. “His high school played in one of the best leagues in the country and he was the player of the year in that league. He played for one of the best AAU programs in arguably the toughest circuit and his AAU program won, and he was a big part of that. He has been coached hard and has a worker mentality. From that standpoint he is advanced.”
Xavier Johnson is not surprised in his hot start either.
“This is what I averaged in high school, so I am still just playing the game,” admitted Johnson.
The confidence in himself and ability to learn can help set the identity and give this team an unheralded leader.
Xavier Johnson plays into the city of Pittsburgh with his worker mentality. Like any team in the city, the Pitt Panthers also want to parlay his defensive identity into their identity. Pitt was holding opponents to 30% from the field coming into this game and held Troy to 35% in this game, despite giving up some size.
The team mentioned a different form of chemistry on that side of the ball that was not around last year.
“Everyone is more confident,” center Kene Chukwuka said. “The chemistry is way better, you all can probably see it on the defensive side of the floor. I can feel it on the floor, we are defending and talking, and it speaks to this chemistry.”
Jared Wilson-Frame was quick to agree that chemistry is the big difference. This could be looked at as no surprise, as head coach Jeff Capel went out of his way to say that he believes this is what their identity needs to be moving forward.
“Our identity needs to be defense,” stressed Capel. “The one thing that has to be consistent for us is our defense.”
Pitt is an undersized team but uses strength, intensity, and speed on defense to make up for it. If they are clicking with this sort of chemistry early, maybe it could grow as the opponents get more stringent.
The one area where Jeff Capel was not amused on the defensive side of the ball was the rebounding effort. Pitt trailed 21-19 on the boards on the first half. Capel and the players all mentioned that was their point of emphasis in the second half. Pitt outrebounded Troy 18-16 in the second half, but it was a tough effort to hang with the Troy bigs.
“Our initial shot defense was good,” admitted Capel. “But, we have to do better rebounding, especially our guards. If we are trying to keep the big guys off of us, we have to gang rebound. We don’t have a guy we can pencil in for 8-10 rebounds a game; we have to do it as a group, we have to gang rebound.”
Rebounding as a team has been something that Capel has preached upon in the past. He is running a four-guard lineup most of the time. No matter what he will likely only roll with one player over 6’7” at a time in his lineup as he rotates the trio of Kene Chukwuka, Peace Ilegomah, and Terrell Brown into one spot. Xavier Johnson added seven boards, but like Wilson-Frame with three-pointers, the team will eventually need others under 6’6” to be a part of the gang.
Terrell Brown increase?
Of the three big men in the rotation, Terrell Brown was the last one off of the bench. After finishing third in playing time amongst the three last week, it appeared as though Brown was in the dog house. It turned out that he was. However, tonight, he may have got himself out of it.
Brown came in and immediately made an impact. He blocked a shot, put up five rebounds and eight points in his first seven minutes. He finished the game with 13 minutes played and 12 points.
Jeff Capel says this week was the best practice session he got out of Brown and thinks it may be correlated to his best play of the season. The lack of playing time in the first two games is correlated to the same thing.
“He came in and practiced the last couple of days and did a good job,” said Capel. “However, we haven’t seen it consistently. We have seen it some, but haven’t seen it consistently. That is what we need moving forward.”
Capel thinks that he can get this type of performance out of Brown more often and that Brown can give even more in an expanded role if he can show the same consistency.
“The big thing with Terrell is his motor. When he plays with the skill that he has he can make a difference. The motor has to be revved up all the time, though.”
As for the rotation of bigs, Kene Chukwuka tends to like it. He sees it as a good way for all three players to go hard as they possibly can, and the mixture of minutes helps bring out the best in everyone.
“Capel preaches just go in and play hard because we have someone to step up for you,” Chukwuka added.
“Terrell is the most advanced scorer on the block of all of them, Kene made a three and I have a lot of confidence in Kene shooting the ball. Peace is the bruiser,” added Jeff Capel.
So, while Brown may earn more time, it seems as though Pitt will continue to mix and match their center spot and look for the right blend of minutes between the three depending on the opponent and flow of the game.