MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When a team loses, particularly early in its season, the hope is that they’ll be able to take something from the loss and apply it to the future.
When a team loses a few games, it ought to open the door a little bit when it comes to what way the team is being beaten.
So with the Pitt Panthers having fallen from 6-0 to 7-3 over the last few weeks, I decided to take a look at what’s been different in their recent losses compared to their wins.
One of the things that jumps off the page when comparing Pitt’s last three wins with the Panthers’ three losses is the play of redshirt junior wing Malik Ellison. Ellison, who is involved in the second-highest percentage of possessions on the team, according to KenPom.com, has seen his scoring take a precipitous downturn.
In Pitt’s last three wins, against North Alabama, Saint Louis and Duquesne, Ellison was in double figures each time, with 15, 13 and 13 points. In Pitt’s three losses, he scored just 13 combined points, putting up four at Iowa, seven against Niagara and a season-low two at West Virginia on Saturday.
It’s certainly a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, but those three games are also three of the four fewest minutes played Ellison has had this season. It’s also three of the bottom four games he’s had in points per minute.
Against the Mountaineers, Pitt didn’t have much going beyond the backcourt tandem of Xavier Johnson (21 points) and Trey McGowens (18 points).
“We had attack their pressure without turning the ball over in the full court and the half court, and then we needed to make shots” head coach Jeff Capel said. “We got some looks at times. I thought Jared Wilson-Frame got some really good looks. That’s what their pressure does sometimes. It speeds you up.”
Wilson-Frame also had a season low with six points against the Mountaineers and shot just 22 percent from the field, his worst of the season, as well.
WIN AND LOSE ON THE WINGS
In Pitt’s four-out, one-in scheme, Ellison and Wilson-Frame play similar roles, usually slotting in as the No. 3 or No. 4 defensively, along with freshman Au’Diese Toney.
Offensively, Ellison is more of a slasher while Wilson-Frame is Pitt’s best 3-point shooting threat, but overall, they’re more similar than they are dissimilar.
In the age of position-less basketball, it’s tough to give an accurate moniker to what those three players do for the Panthers as something of a hybrid between the historic roles of shooting guard and small forward. For now, we’ll just call them wings — bigger than the pure guards and smaller than the forwards and centers.
Taken as a whole, Ellison, Toney and Wilson-Frame have had an outsized effect in whether or not Pitt wins or loses.
I put Pitt’s players and Pitt’s opponents into those three groups (guards, wings and forwards) and figured out the number of points for and against each group in Pitt’s three losses and the Panthers’ last three wins.
Even when Pitt was winning, the Panthers’ big men — primarily Terrell Brown and Kene Chukwuka — were getting slaughtered, scoring 23 points over three games while allowing 65 for a minus-42 margin. Pitt’s guards — Johnson, McGowens, Sidy N’Dir and Kham Davis — came out slightly ahead, scoring 101 and allowing 86 (plus-16).
The wings, then, provided the margin of victory. Ellison, Toney and Wilson-Frame scored 96 points and allowed 42 points, a plus-54 margin that more than made up for Pitt’s failings at forward.
In Pitt’s three losses, though, that didn’t happen. The big men were similarly challenged, putting up a minus-40 margin against Iowa, Niagara and West Virginia. The guards actually did better, scoring more (114 points) and allowing less (75 points) to improve to a plus-39 margin.
Where things fell apart was on the wings, where Pitt allowed 67 points and scored 56, a minus-11 margin and a 65-point swing from the three wins to the three losses.
Ellison’s drop-off was the most dramatic, but Wilson-Frame scored seven fewer points and Toney scored five fewer points. Considering that two of Pitt’s three losses came by a single point, just maintaining their average may have been enough to turn the tide in Pitt’s favor in one of those games.
BOMBING ON THE BOARDS
Pitt was out-rebounded by West Virginia, 41-33, and while the overall margin was poor, the Panthers’ concerning trend of allowing offensive rebounds continued. The Mountaineers grabbed 20 offensive boards, while Pitt had just 23 defensive rebounds. Put another way, every time West Virginia missed a shot, they had a 46.5 percent chance of getting their own rebound.
The Mountaineers turned that into 17 second-chance points. Pitt had just five.
It’s a continuation of a season-long trend for the Panthers, who are No. 242 in the nation (out of 353 teams) in offensive rebounds allowed, according to KenPom.com. Though Pitt’s team defense is a strength (No. 60 according to KenPom.com), allowing opponents additional possessions is a recipe for disaster.
West Virginia forward Sagaba Konate had six blocks against the Panthers, repeatedly stuffing Pitt’s attempts at driving the lane and altering many more shots. The Panthers kept going right at him, and eventually were able to get to the free-throw line some, but there was no question that the big man from Kennedy Catholic had a big impact on the game.
At the other end of the floor, Pitt had five blocks, which is actually unusual. The Panthers have been one of the worst shot-blocking teams in basketball. They now average 3.5 blocks per game, No. 163 in the nation. But that’s based on a per-game rate, not a percentage total. When KenPom.com figures the latter total, the Panthers come in No. 350.
WRAPPING IT UP
Pitt has three games remaining in its non-conference schedule. They host Maryland-Eastern Shore on Saturday, New Orleans on Dec. 20 and Colgate on Dec. 29.
If the Panthers can get three more wins, they’ll finish the non-conference schedule with a 10-3 record. Road losses at Iowa (KenPom No. 38) and West Virginia (KenPom No. 32) were probably expected, and while the home loss to Niagara was a poor one, Pitt did beat Saint Louis (KenPom No. 72) on a neutral court. That record is probably close to what would have been a reasonable expectation for the non-conference schedule coming into the season.
The good news for the Panthers is that, while the ACC schedule is a grind like any other, it’s not like they’ll have to break a ton of new ground. Of their 18 conference games, nine will be against teams that are currently rated above Iowa and West Virginia and nine are against teams currently rated below.