NEW YORK — There’s obviously a lot of differences between this Pitt basketball team and the ones that have come before it.
For one, they’re just more athletic and more talented than their immediate predecessor. It looks like they’re a good bit better overall, as well, as the Panthers win on Wednesday improved them to 6-0 — just two wins away from their 2017-18 total.
After Pitt’s game in New York, a national writer was interviewing players for a story and was asking about last season. To someone that’s been around the team this year, last season seems 100 years in the past.
Some of it is the new talent. Some of it is a year of experience. But a lot of it is just a change in mindset that is honestly hard to quantify.
Not only does this team feels different than last year’s team, it feels different Pitt basketball has felt in, honestly, quite some time. There’s a championship-level expectation. There’s no hedging, no excuse-making, no doubts about how good the team is and how good they expect to become.
It’s impossible to lay the credit for that change at the feet of anyone other than new Pitt coach Jeff Capel.
He’s a man that exudes confidence, and frankly, why shouldn’t he? He went to multiple Final Fours as a player at Duke, took Oklahoma to the Elite Eight and recruited some of the best players in basketball over the last decade while helping Duke win a national championship as an assistant. He’s a man that’s been there and done that.
CONFIDENCE IN COACHING
Capel’s experience as a recruit comes without par. His experience as an X’s and O’s head coach is not something that was as clearly defined when he arrived in Pittsburgh.
Wednesday against Saint Louis, he made a late-game call that required confidence and conviction, and then his players executed it perfectly.
With Pitt leading, Saint Louis got the ball back, down two points with 25 seconds left on the clock. The Billikens worked the ball around until they found forward Hasahn French, who was immediately fouled by Johnson.
Saint Louis was in the bonus. So with 4.5 seconds left on the clock, Pitt handed its opponent the opportunity to tie the game on free throws.
French, a career 53.5 percent free-throw shooter, air-balled the first one. Saint Louis fouled Johnson on the in-bounds play and he made both free throws to put Pitt up four. Ballgame.
That’s a bold strategy to implement, and also took a high level of focus to execute from Pitt’s young players in their first tight late-game scenario.
“For them to be able to take from the timeout out onto the court and execute it perfectly was really, really good,” Capel said.
Wednesday, Pitt played its toughest opponent of the 2018-19 season and did so while playing away from home for the first time this year.
They were also playing in an NBA building for the first time for Pitt’s three freshmen.
Last year, when Pitt played its first of three games at the Barclays Center against Penn State, some of Pitt’s players said that playing in an NBA venue for the first time had them a bit out of sorts.
That wasn’t the case on Wednesday, as the Panthers turned in one of their best performances of the season, especially the freshmen.
Individually, Johnson was at his best, as well, despite missing most of the first half with foul trouble. He led the team with 20 points in addition to his strong late-game play.
When asked about rising to the challenge of playing in New York, playing in an NBA venue, and facing his best opponent yet, Johnson showed the confidence that Capel has instilled:
“This is one of my dreams,” he said. “I’ve got to conquer it somehow. I feel like I can play here in a couple year, so I’ve got to get used to it.”
THE OLD MAN
When Johnson went to the bench, Sidy N’Dir stepped up with his best game as a Panther. He directed the offense, was stout on defense, and delivered a thunderous dunk in transition.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) November 21, 2018
“I thought Sidy was amazing,” Capel said. “He played 27 minutes. Really did a great job in the first half with poise when X was out. I played he and X together. He was an older guy today. He was the guy that we recruited.”
MAN IN THE MIDDLE
Terrell Brown gave Pitt some excellent minutes off the bench, particularly late in the first half, when it seemed like Saint Louis was getting some momentum inside. Brown was aggressive on the boards, altered shots on defense, and was a bona fide presence inside.”
“He’s done that for us a different moments,” Capel said. “Hopefully, that light is starting to come on.”