PITTSBURGH — It’s probably pretty easy to get caught up in some of the hype of Pitt basketball right now.
The team is on a roll, having knocked off North Alabama, 71-66 on Saturday afternoon to improve to 5-0 on the season.
Their scoring is way up from a year ago, with Jared Wilson-Frame averaging almost 20 points per game off the bench, the dynamic freshman trio of Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney have both filled the scoresheets and lifted the hearts of the Pitt faithful with insane, athletic plays like this one:
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) November 16, 2018
They’re a fun group, they seem to love to play for one another and for Jeff Capel, they’re exciting to watch. Everything is going great.
Of course, that’s not the total, objective truth.
In the grand scheme of things, Pitt has pretty much played no one.
With their fifth victory, they moved to No. 126 in the KenPom.com efficiency rankings, still in the ACC’s basement.
The teams they’ve played? No. 333 North Alabama, No. 298 Central Arkansas, No. 177 Troy, No. 317 VMI and No. 323 Youngstown State.
So yeah, they haven’t faced a lot of quality competition yet this season. That’s going to change in a hurry, with No. 80 St. Louis, No. 28 Iowa, No. 158 Duquesne and No. 23 West Virginia representing four of the Panthers’ next five opponents.
They will also represent Pitt’s first ventures from the friendly confines of Petersen Events Center, with a trip to Brooklyn to face the Billikens, a jaunt down Fifth Avenue to PPG Paints Arena to meet the Dukes and trips to Iowa City and Morgantown for a pair of true road games.
So, enjoy the fun while it lasts, because that might not be for a whole lot longer.
But that doesn’t mean things are terrible, either. The Panthers have shown a lot of signs of promise in addition to their point and win totals, that should be reflected by some improvement against the tougher foes on their slate.
Here’s what I think might translate from Pitt’s hot early start:
• Malik Ellison is a Swiss Army knife.
Pitt’s redshirt junior wing doesn’t look like he’s going to lead the team in any statistical category, but he might end up being Pitt’s most important singular piece.
A guard lining up at the four spot, he’s responsible for defending players that are going to be as many as five or six inches taller at times.
But he’s also part of the up-tempo transition game that Pitt wants to play. Behind Xavier Johnson and Sidy N’Dir, he’s the team’s tertiary ball-carrier and has an important role there, as well, and everywhere in between.
Spot up 3-point shooter? He can do that. Drive to the rim? He can do that, too. Ellison isn’t as flashy of a player as Pitt’s three freshman and isn’t as dynamic of a scorer as Wilson-Frame, but he’s been the piece that has made Pitt’s four-guard mix work so far.
• Pitt’s perimeter defense is much improved, with Ellison, Johnson and McGowens bringing a nice mix of athleticism and intensity. There are teams that will shoot over them. There are probably a lot of teams that will be able to work the ball inside.
But it doesn’t feel like anyone is going to be able to feel comfortable doing it. There’s a relentlessness to Pitt’s pressure, that when combined with their ability to go the other way in transition, makes teams very uneasy with the ball.
• They have a sneaky amount of depth. Pitt played most of the first half without Johnson on Thursday. N’Dir stepped in with no problem.
There hasn’t been a lot of separation amongst the three big men, but that means that there won’t be a big drop off if one picks up some early fouls.
They have Khameron Davis and Shamiel Stevenson in small-minutes roles that should better suit their skillsets, but they are also players that played a lot last year and should be able to increase their minutes load if there are injuries or ineffective play.
THE TROUBLE AHEAD
What Pitt hasn’t faced is a team with an interior offensive presence, a team that can really dominate the glass, or a team that can prevent Pitt’s athletic guards from getting to the rim when they drive past a defender.
We’ve seen pieces of some of that, but not to the same level that Pitt will face night in and night out in ACC play, and unless Pitt’s forwards step up in a big way, it doesn’t seem like they have many easy fixes for those issues.
It’s going to mean that there are games where it will be hard for Pitt to keep up when they can’t make a stop and can’t get to the rim for an easy basket.
Those days are ahead, but for now, Pitt fans should rightfully feel pretty good about the Panthers’ 5-0 start.