LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Pitt is in the grinder of the ACC schedule.
The Panthers have faced some of the best teams in the nation over the last four weeks, and thus their 2-4 record is probably not as a bad as it otherwise may seem.
The Panthers have faced current No. 2 Duke, No. 11 North Carolina, No. 21 NC State and No. 23 Louisville twice. They also played Florida State — which was just 15 vote points out of the Top 25 — and faced Syracuse, which also received votes this week, on the road.
That kind of stretch will reveal the warts in even deep, experienced teams, and the Panthers are neither. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Three of Pitt’s next five games are against teams with losing records in conference, as they’ll visit 1-5 Clemson, 2-4 Boston College and 1-6 Wake Forest. Their other two games, against Syracuse and NC State, are at home against teams that Pitt narrowly lost to on the road. It’s a five-game stretch that could see the Panthers take some serious steps to right their 2-5 record in ACC play.
But that’s ignoring the effect the previous seven games have had on Pitt’s team. The grinder of the ACC schedule is real, and most of Pitt’s regulars are going through it for the first time.
“Everyone is a little bit banged up, especially guys who play a lot of minutes,” Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said. “Everyone is a little bit fatigued and you have to have something where you can push through. Normally you see teams that are a little bit older, they are able to do that. They have a little bit more experience. They understand how to handle this.”
HITTING A WALL?
Of Pitt’s five leaders in average minutes per game this season, three are freshmen, and a fourth — junior wing Malik Ellison — did not play last year.
“For our group, this is different for everyone,” Capel said. “For our freshman, they’ve never been through anything like this. So I think we are a little bit fried from there. For our returning guys, I don’t know by this time of the season last year. I don’t know how much they were fighting. They were maybe ready to check it in. So we are learning a lot as we go.”
Those four players, in particular, might be showing some signs of slowing down. Johnson has back-to-back games in single digits scoring after starting his career with 18 straight of 10 or more points. After going off for 30 points twice in the span of a week, McGowens has 28 points total over his last three games. Toney is 3 for 20 (15 percent) from the floor over his last two games. Ellison, who is averaging over 10 points per game this season, has just six over his last two.
Capel didn’t offer any magical solution for his team’s sudden downturn in offensive fortunes.
“No one is going to feel sorry for us, we can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” he said. “We have to keep fighting and keep competing.”
A DIFFERENT PATH
Three of Pitt’s five ACC losses have come in games where the opponent has heavily featured a zone defense (North Carolina, Syracuse and Duke). But Louisville was able to hold the Panthers to 51 points on Saturday, Pitt’s lowest output of the season, and did it by almost exclusively sticking to a man-to-man defense.
Pitt had 33 points in the first half and was shooting 42.9 percent after 20 minutes. In the second half, the Panthers scored just 18 points and shot 26.9 percent from the floor.
For the first time, the Cardinals presented an opposing man-to-man defense that was able to prevent Johnson and McGowens from getting to the rim without fouling them, as Pitt took just 13 free throws as a team.
“Well I thought we had some opportunities off ball screens in the first half that we finished, and in the second half we didn’t,” Capel said. “We had three layups right there off of rolls that we just didn’t finish. We had a foul one time where we stepped up and missed two free throws. And then that puts a little more pressure on our guards, because now we feel like, ‘I have to do it, I have to make something happen.’”
Part of that was a strangely poor offensive afternoon from Pitt’s big men. Terrell Brown was held scoreless and took just one shot. Kene Chukwuka was 2 for 4, but both of his misses were layups.
Another part of that was the Panthers being unable to get anything going from long range on a regular basis. Pitt shot 28.6 percent from 3-point range on 21 attempts, but Jared Wilson-Frame and Sidy N’Dir accounted for all six makes. The rest of the Panthers were 0 for 8 from 3-point range.
“[Louisville] did a great job of gapping up,” Capel said. “When we came off of ball screens, they gapped up and so we had pitches that were there, but we were reluctant to shoot the three.”
Wilson-Frame said he thought there was too much of an individual effort happening on the offensive side of the ball in the second half.
“We missed a couple shots, then we got to a point where everybody was kinda putting too much pressure on their own self, instead of just staying connected” he said. “That’s the reason we were up at halftime, was because we were connected on offense. … We started being a little bit more selfish on offense and that contributes and carries over to the defensive end.”
Overall, Pitt played a pretty good game defensively. The Cardinals shot below 40 percent, turned the ball over 13 times and generally never seemed at ease against the Panthers.
“That team was leading our league in scoring, averaging a little bit over 83 points per game, and for us to hold them to 66, is pretty good,” Capel said.
The ability to be a high-level defense is definitely there for the Panthers, but they’ve been sunk over the past few games by some poor individual stretches.
Pitt was leading by one in the second half when Louisville started what became a game-defining 18-5 run. But it started pretty innocently.
Here’s the first ten possessions of Louisville’s run:
Missed three — offensive rebound
That’s hardly the look of a team that’s on a run. But what happened at the same time on the other end was largely the same.
Turnvoer (offensive foul)
Missed two — offensive rebound
Missed two of two free throws
Over ten possessions on either side, Pitt was down 0-6. That’s a skid, but hardly a fatal one. But what happened next was that Pitt’s poor offensive play leaked into its defense, and Louisville capitalized.
That’s something Capel and company can improve going forward.