PITTSBURGH — When Pitt started the 2019-20 basketball season at Petersen Events Center on Wednesday night, there was a lot that had changed since the last time the Panthers took to the court.
The court, for one, is new, along with the scoreboards, benches, student section, pep band, fixed television camera mounts and even the media suite at the Pete.
There was plenty new in the Panthers’ lineup as well. Two transfers and two freshmen changed the dynamic of the team by inserting shooting, size and athleticism into the Panthers’ lineup.
The opponent was different, as well. For the first time, Pitt started the season not with a directional-school nobody, but with the Florida State Seminoles, an ACC opponent inserted at the top of the schedule as the league attempted to ignite interest in college basketball earlier in the calendar year and attempt to garnish more views for its fledgling television network.
There was a lot of new on display at the Pete on Wednesday, but the most important thing that happened on the court was a lot of the same.
With all of those changes, Pitt is still mostly the same Pitt team that pulled the program out of a nosedive and inspired hope for the future in Jeff Capel’s first season in 2018-19.
It starts with the play of lead guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens, the two players Capel first recruited to Pitt after he was hired in 2018.
Johnson and McGowens did not have the best performances of their careers on Wednesday, but with singleminded focus, they lead the Panthers in everything they do with a relentless dedication to attacking.
On offense, that means attacking the rim, as the Pitt backcourt knifed and slashed and ran headlong into Florida State’s forest of forwards that for the first half, seemed determined to bat, swat and alter each Pitt shot into oblivion.
The Panthers started out the game by making just two of their first 17 field goals (11.8%). But while the Pitt faithful were growing restless with this rendition of the Panthers’ offense, Pitt’s headlong charge into the teeth of the Florida State defense was having an effect.
While Pitt was busy missing 15 times in the game’s first 14 minutes, they were also busy getting fouled. By the time Pitt had made a third jump shot, the Panthers had already been fouled eight times and had a number of Florida State’s key contributors in foul trouble.
Pitt ended up getting to the line a total of 31 times and made 22 of them, while Florida State finished 13 for 15 at the stripe. In a game where Pitt was badly outshot, and turnovers and rebounds were largely even, that ended being a deciding factor in the Panthers’ narrow win.
“It’s what we do,” Capel said after the victory. “We want to attack. We feel like we have a couple of guards that can really get into the paint and create off the bounce and do some things.
“We know that they’re a team, usually, with a lot of size, but we want to challenge that and also to break the defense down. It’s who we are and what we do.”
In a game that both coaches characterized as sloppy, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton thought one of the deciding factors was Pitt doing a better job of knowing its strengths and playing to them,
“Their ability to get to the foul line was one of the biggest differences in the game,” Hamilton said. “They did a very good job at playing to their strengths and they got to the foul line constantly. They were executing their system better than we were.”
MAKING THEM PAY
Of course, Florida State came into Wednesday’s game well aware of exactly what Pitt does. The Panthers upset the Seminoles in January, mostly by cutting the same rut to the free throw line that they did on Wednesday.
“We tried not to foul them, but that didn’t work,” Hamilton said. “I think they are extremely confident guys. They believe in themselves. I think coach [Capel] has done a great job at mapping a system that give them a chance to be who they are, while they are working hard to be who they will become later.”
That meant that not only was Pitt getting to the line, but that three Florida State players eventually fouled out of the game, something that loomed large as the game came down to the final possessions.
“They’re big, but they’re gonna foul,” Pitt forward Terrell Brown said. “If you can get them out, that just opens up the floor for Trey and X.”
Pitt has a mindset of attacking. It’s what Capel believes in. It’s the thing Pitt’s players are best at, and for the first time in a long time, it really feels like Pitt has an identity on the basketball court.
With all of that being said, missing 15 of their first 17 shots is going to cause most teams to lose a basketball game.
The reason that Pitt didn’t lose on Wednesday was the tenacious man-to-man defense they played all game long, cause Florida State to also shoot in the 30s.
Pitt played mostly a four-guard lineup, as they almost exclusively did in 2018-19, but the additions of players like Ryan Murphy, Justin Champagnie and Gerald Drumgoole mean that there is considerably more depth and size, particularly on the wings.
When it became clear that sophomore Au’Diese Toney wasn’t having a good night, Capel went to he bench and played Champagnie 23 minutes, something that he didn’t have the ability to do a year ago.
That wasn’t necessarily the game plan, but Capel now has a deeper, more flexible roster, and the overall level of ability, athleticism and effort on the defensive side of the floor to have a difference maker.
They were also able to turn that defense into offense, something that is usually Florida State’s m.o., not the other way around.
“Very seldom do we play a team that gets more transition baskets than we do,” Hamilton said.
Through one game, it’s pretty clear that junior college transfer Ryan Murphy is going to be an important part of Pitt’s offense. When Pitt finally broke out off its shooting slump, it was Murphy from 3-point range that provided the spark.
Pitt’s offensive game plan is going to draw obvious attention to Johnson and McGowens and at times last season, it stalled when another option was unable to get going.
Murphy came alive at the end of the first half. In the second half, Pitt was also able to get Brown going into the paint. That’s when Pitt’s offense is at its best, when the driving guards have perimeter kick-outs and back-door passes to big men, and both sides are converting.
Brown has shown steady progression in his time at Pitt, but the addition of Murphy as a 3-point shooter that can scare teams is going to open up some of those driving lanes.
“He can really shoot and he’s confident,” Capel said. “But he also knows how to play. He’s a little bit better off the bounce. He knows how to play and he has a passion for playing.”
Even though Murphy was a clear spark on Wednesday, Capel said there is even more he can bring to the table.
“There are some areas, especially in transition, where we can do a better job of finding him,” Capel said. “As we understand, as a group, as a team, how to utilize that weapon a little bit more, I think that’ll help us become even better.”
Capel did not use a deep rotation on Wednesday, bringing just three players off the bench: Brown, Champagnie and Murphy.
The Panthers don’t have a ton more depth available. Of their four other scholarship players, Ithiel Horton is ineligible this season and Kene Chukwuka is still working back from hip surgery, leaving just freshman forward Abdoul Karim Coulibaly, little-used junior Samson George and the team’s walk-ons.
But Capel said that while he may not have many more options off the bench, he will need contributions from all of his available players.
“I hope we don’t have anyone with their head down, because we’re going to need them all,”H he said. “We’re going to need them at noon on Saturday.”
Pitt has a short turnaround for its second game this Saturday at noon against Nicholls State, a team that nearly upset Illinois in its opener.