PITTSBURGH — Before Pitt hosted the No. 2 Duke Blue Devils at Petersen Events Center on Tuesday night, head coach Jeff Capel called the game a “measuring stick” to see how his young Panthers stacked up against of the top teams in the ACC and in all of NCAA basketball.
The Panthers started off hot, went on a long slow stretch toward the end of the first half, and hung tough in the second, but eventually suffered a 15-point loss at the hands of RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson and company.
“We have a long way to go,” Capel said. “I knew that before, I knew that during. We have a long way to come.”
So after the game, what are the areas where the Panthers measure up, and where do they still need to improve in order to compete with the big dogs of college basketball.
OUTSTANDING: GUARD PENETRATION
The Panthers’ duo of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens have been able to dribble-drive against just about everyone in the country, and the Blue Devils were no exception.
Here’s some of the highlights of McGowens’ team-high 14 points, and you’ll notice a pattern fairly quickly.
Rough game for Pitt vs Duke last night, but Trey McGowens (@trey5mac_) had a solid scoring game. 7-14 shooting (only 1PPS, though), but really showed his nice touch with his finishes in traffic. pic.twitter.com/Zo62ZO3YU5
— Spencer (@SKPearlman) January 23, 2019
Pitt is so good at dribble-driving that many teams, Duke included, have decided to play more zone against them to keep them from getting to the rim. Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski seemed downright afraid of that happening to his team in his postgame press conference on Tuesday.
“We just stayed zone,” he said. “They had those small lineups out there where they just picked us apart I think and got us into foul trouble. With Tre [Jones] out, we’re a different team, so I thought the zone was good. The best thing for us, it kept McGowens and Johnson off the free throw line and I can’t believe they didn’t score a point from the free throw line because they’re such good drivers. The zone kept them out and we’re lucky they didn’t hit some shots and we hit some.”
Making Duke do something of that significance in order to adjust to the Panthers should go a long way to illustrate how talented Pitt is in that area.
UNSATISFACTORY: ZONE BALL MOVEMENT
The problem that has arisen, is that as more and more teams struggled to guard Pitt man-to-man and go to a zone, the more success they’re having.
Pitt’s last three losses have all come against teams that played a good bit of zone against them. Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said he wished he’d gone to it sooner.
It’s definitely become a problem for the Panthers, even though Jeff Capel tried to downplay its effect on Tuesday after the loss to Duke.
“We have to learn how to attack it better,” Capel said. “We have to put our guys in positions to attack it better. We have to be able to make some outside shots, but we have to have the movement where we get the right shots. It’s hard for us. We can’t simulate the height in practice, and that’s what that zone was. Syracuse wasn’t as big, but they’re pretty big and I don’t think it was just that. They’re better than us – they are more talented than us. So, I think that’s what it was. I don’t think it was just the zone, I think it was their talent and how good they are that won them the game. That zone isn’t kryptonite for us.”
So what can Pitt do better? Well for one, they can not face the zone as often.
“If we rebound the ball better, we’re able to beat the zone down the court,” Capel said. “Instead, we gave up 16 offensive rebounds, so that’s a way we can beat the zone better. We have to do a better job there. If we don’t turn the ball over as much, we can maybe attack the zone a little bit better.”
The second thing they can do it get better shooting from wing Au’Diese Toney, who finished 1 for 10 as the middle man attacking the Duke zone.
The third thing is move the ball around the perimeter a bit better. Pitt had just six assists on 22 made baskets, and Capel said they needed to move the ball more crisply and quickly to take advantage of narrow windows in the zone.
SATISFACTORY: PERIMETER DEFENSE
Duke shot 30.4 percent from 3-point range and 43.1 percent from the floor against the Panthers, and while those numbers aren’t eye-popping, they’re good enough against a team that can be an offensive dynamo.
While Williamson gave the Panthers a ton of problems inside, Barrett and Reddish, who have more perimeter-based games, were less effective. Barrett did have 26 points, but he did it on 10 of 24 shooting (41.6 percent), while Reddish was just 4 of 16 from the floor (25 percent).
“It’s crazy, but I thought we did a decent job on RJ, even though he had on 26 points,” Capel said. “I don’t think it was efficient. He was 10 for 24, so you can roll the dice there. He hit a couple of big threes there in the second half.”
Of course, Pitt wasn’t dealing with the full complement of Duke perimeter players, with Tre Jones out with a shoulder injury, but it was a good enough defensive performance to mostly keep the Panthers in the game.
NEEDS IMPROVEMENT: DEFENDING WITHOUT FOULING
Look, everyone struggles in this category against Duke, because of the size and strength of the physical athletes involved, and let’s just call it a healthy amount of respect for Coach K’s accomplishments from those wearing stripes.
But Pitt, with its overall lack of depth, is in an especially poor place to be taking needless fouls, and too many of their 18 against the Blue Devils were exactly that.
Particularly egregious were Terrell Brown’s two first-half fouls, one on Marques Bolden, and the other on Williamson, that earned Pitt’s starting center a seat on the bench. When Brown sat down, Pitt’s offense significantly struggled with paint touches against the zone.
“It hurt us,” Capel said. “Zion is a very difficult guy to defend. No one has done it yet. … Terrell not being in there did hurt us, but I think their talent hurt us more than anything.”
NEEDS IMPROVEMENT: SHOTMAKING
The Panthers shot just fine from the field at 41.5 percent, but they hit just 3 of 15 from long range. Jared Wilson-Frame made 2 of his 4. The whole rest of the team made just 1 of 11. McGowens said he wasn’t bothered by a facial injury against Syracuse, but has shot better in the past. Toney (1 for 4) and Brown (0 for 2) should probably not be accounting for nearly half of Pitt’s 3-point shots, especially with better shooters like Sidy N’Dir and Khameron Davis available.