PITTSBURGH – After Pitt won its season debut against Florida State in front of an electric crowd at the Petersen Events Center, one of Jeff Capel’s first tasks at hand was to find a way to bring his team back down to Earth.
A strong finish last season and an upset ACC win on opening night provided a glimmer of hope that the dog days of old were presumably nearing their conclusion, something the Pitt faithful has been desperately longing for since the Jamie Dixon era. Led by a talented sophomore backcourt duo, a fiery junior-college transfer and a few solid complementary pieces around them, the Panthers had a chance to finally say goodbye to the abysmal conference records, quiet nights full of empty seats at the Pete, and inexcusable non-conference losses to lower-tier programs.
And they still can. But pump the brakes, because there’s still a lot more growing up to do.
Pitt’s 75-70 setback to Nicholls State Saturday afternoon – a team it was favored to beat by 18.5 points – served as a brutal reminder for a young core that, in reality, they’re not quite ready yet.
“We have a long way to go and I know that,” Capel said after the loss. “We won the first game and it’s almost like, ‘Hey, we were right. Everything has changed.’ No, it hasn’t. I understand that, but it’s hard sometimes to get an 18 year-old, or a 19 year-old, or a 20, 21 or 22 year-old to understand that.”
A rotation consisting of one junior, two transfers, three sophomores and three freshmen performed exactly as advertised.
The Panthers were inconsistent on both ends of the floor, careless with the ball, started slow, couldn’t defend the perimeter, and made key mistakes at several critical moments – all traits of an inexperienced team still trying to find its footing. Against Florida State, the Panthers proved they can play up to their competition.
But on Saturday, they proved they can play down to it, too.
“We have to grow up,” said Capel. “That’s the main thing. After we beat Florida State, the next day when we came back, one of the things I talked to our team about was that we have to understand the seriousness of college basketball. It’s every day. It’s not one game. It’s not sometimes. It’s every day, and the investment mentally and physically that you have to put into it. We have to understand that.”
Nicholls State wasn’t a slouch by any means. The Colonels took Illinois to overtime in a 78-70 loss to begin their season and fielded an experienced, streaky-shooting lineup that was hard to stop once they got hot. As a team, they shot 11 for 24 (45 percent) from 3-point territory, including 7 for 14 in the first half as they built a 10-point lead into halftime. They translated 19 offensive rebounds into 26 second-chance points and totaled 26 points off 21 forced turnovers.
But regardless, the Panthers beat themselves more than Nicholls State did. And unlike the Florida State game, the self-inflicted hole was just a little too deep to escape this time.
“We’re not as good as our guys maybe think we are,” said Capel. “There are people who have patted them on the back for a night and two days. They won’t be getting pats today.”
ANOTHER SLOW START
Pitt stumbled out of the gate for the second consecutive outing, missing its first seven shots and 11 of its first 16. The same starting lineup that began the Florida State game –Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson, Au’Diese Toney, Gerald Drumgoole Jr. and Eric Hamilton – committed five turnovers in the game’s first five minutes. McGowens struggled to facilitate with the ball, and Xavier Johnson was a non-factor in the first half. It took the Panthers over four minutes to drain their first bucket while Nicholls State seemingly couldn’t miss. Talk about a collective disaster.
“We didn’t have the energy that was worthy of winning throughout the game,” said Capel. “We didn’t have the toughness and togetherness. Some of that had to do with Nicholls because of how well they played and they’re a good basketball team, but we have to have a maturity that’s not there yet.”
The slow start led to a 10-point halftime deficit, which grew to as much as 12 in the second half before the Panthers mounted their comeback. But every step forward was followed by two more backward, and aside from Ryan Murphy, the Panthers started and ended with limited offensive production from their key cogs.
“(It’s about) coming out like it’s the second half,” said Murphy. “How we came out in the second half and started to chip away at the lead, we’ve got to come out in the first half with a chip on our shoulder to start the game.”
TOO MANY TURNOVERS
Johnson and McGowens ended with a mere 10 points each, but the lack of scoring was the least of their issues. Pitt’s two most talented players combined for nine of the Panthers’ 21 turnovers, which is the last thing a young team can afford when playing from behind. McGowens committed three turnovers in the first half, while three of Johnson’s five came in the second half.
“I thought (poor) decision-making, rushing,” said Capel of the turnovers “Sometimes just trying to do too much. That can be a big part of it. Just all those things, not being totally connected.”
Murphy added his fair share, as well.
“I had five turnovers,” he said, bluntly. “That’s terrible.”
“(If) we cut down probably minus four of those turnovers and we win this game,” Murphy later added. “I just think I’ve got to take care of the ball better.”
After stellar freshmen campaigns, McGowens and Johnson will need to adjust to how opposing teams gameplan and go about defending them. In reality, there’s a larger target on their backs now.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “The attention to them and what teams are doing on ball-screens. And until we change it, teams are going to continue to try to do it because it’s been a recipe for forcing turnovers. It’s something we’re going to have to make some adjustments to.
“They’re pressuring, but really, it’s a heightened sense of awareness for those two guys when they have the ball.”
Plus, Jared Wilson-Frame is no longer on the outside as a perimeter threat who can keep teams from collapsing on McGowen and Johnson on drives through the lane. Both will need to learn how to create their own offensive opportunities.
NOT DEFENDING THE PERIMETER
A majority of the 24 3-point attempts Nicholls State took were on uncontested good looks. Pitt was fortunate, though, because the game could’ve ended with an entirely different outcome had the Colonels converted on more than 11 of them.
“There were times where we had hands up and they were just going in,” said Murphy. “Guys on the other team got into a good rhythm. (D’Angelo Hunter) got into a good rhythm. They were just making shots. I think we could’ve pressured the ball a little more, myself included.”
After making seven of 14 in the first half, the Colonels shot 4 for 10 in the final 20 minutes as the Panthers started to buckle down on their close-outs.
WHERE’S THE SCORING?
Pitt won’t get anywhere in the ACC if Murphy is the lone person who can score at a consistent rate. He singlehandedly carried the team offensively, finishing with a career-high 28 points off the bench on an efficient 10 of 17 shooting, to go along with five rebounds and two steals. All four of the Panthers’ 3-pointers came from him, while the rest of the team shot a collective 0 for 9 from deep.
“We have to be better offensively and that’s across the board,” said Capel. “One guy doesn’t make an offense. Certainly (Murphy’s) ability to shoot the basketball, I thought he played with passion and I thought he tried to compete today. But we need everyone doing that. The really good offenses are when you have five guys playing as one. We haven’t had that yet.”
Outside of Murphy, Johnson and McGowens, Terrell Brown (8) was the only Panther to contribute more than five points.
Pitt looks next to a road contest with Robert Morris in the inaugural game at the UPMC Events Center on Nov. 12.