PITTSBURGH — When Pitt was assembling its 2019 recruiting class, Jeff Capel and the Panthers spent an absurd amount of time chasing a talented big man (or two) to go along with their three talented returning guards.
Capel set his sights high, with Pitt targeting four-star players such as Oscar Tshiebwe, Kofi Cockburn, Aidan Igiehon and Akok Akok.
The Panthers didn’t land any of them, with Akok going to UConn, Igiehon to Louisville, Cockburn to Illinois and Tshiebwe to West Virginia.
Farther down the line, Pitt also lost out on Anthony Walker (Miami), Qudus Wahab (Georgetown), Ibrahima Diallo (Ohio State), Tyrese Samuel (Seton Hall) and Khadim Sy (Ole Miss).
Pitt eventually did land a couple of big men, getting 6-foot-8 freshman Abdoul Karim Coulibaly and 6-foot-9 transfer Eric Hamilton. But they didn’t get a top-tier forward to go with their highly touted guards.
Friday night at Petersen Events Center, it showed. Glaringly.
With the Panthers hosting West Virginia, Tshiebwe put on a show, scoring 20 points, gathering 17 rebounds and blocking three shots as the Mountaineers routed the Panthers, 68-53.
Pitt had no answer for the physical forward from Kennedy Catholic, that just months earlier, the Panthers had hosted on a visit in that same building in order to woo him to Pitt.
Instead, they had no one able to match his intensity on the glass and in the paint.
“He’s a big kid,” said 6-foot-6 Pitt wing Justin Champagnie, who occasionally matched up against the three-inches-taller Tshiebwe. “He’s tall, he’s strong and he’s athletic. So trying to box him out is hard. He was just all over the place, flying around, left to right and being up on the boards.”
NOT JUST ABOUT SIZE
Part of being able to match up with a player like Tshiebwe is having the personnel to deal with him.
On that front, Pitt clearly does not. Terrell Brown and Hamilton both getting into early foul trouble didn’t help, but if anything, Tshiebwe was even more dominant when they returned in the second half.
Another way to deal with a player like Tshiebwe is to be able to match his intensity level. Pitt failed there, as well.
In one sequence in the first half, Tshiebwe was late to the glass, but split two Panthers who had better position and snatched it away for an offensive rebound, one of 19 for the Mountaineers in the game.
Capel called a timeout in frustration.
“We couldn’t rebound,” he said. “That was a fear coming into the game. That was a play where he was way behind. I think he was coming in from half court. The shot was right in front of our bench. It was a three. And obviously, he was dominating on the boards and there was no sense of urgency to put a body him. It was frustration at that point, but really frustration all night.”
FINISHING IN THE FOREST
While Tshiebwe recorded only three blocks, the presence of him and a half-dozen other Mountaineers that are 6-foot-8 or taller gave Pitt’s dribble-drive game problems all night.
“Getting to the rim wasn’t difficult, but finishing around the rim was difficult,” Champagnie said. “They’re obviously big kids, but it’s a man’s game, so you’ve just go to be better.”
Even Pitt’s biggest players struggled with the size and physicality West Virginia presented underneath the rim. Brown finished 1 for 4, his worst game of the season. Hamilton was 0 for 3, Samson George was 0 for 2 and Au’Diese Toney was 0 for 4. Only Coulibaly (2 for 6) seemed to do any damage against the WVU forest.
LID ON THE RIM
Pitt’s trouble finishing at the rim made the Panthers an outside shooting team. There’s a problem with that. They’re not very good at it.
The Panthers shot 2 of 12 from 3-point range (16.7%) against the Mountaineers and were only slightly better (29.6%) from inside the arc.
“Three for 25 is as bad as I’ve seen, as bad as I’ve been a part of,” Capel said, referencing Pitt’s second-half shooting. “ A big part of it is their defense, but our inability to finish — that’s something that we have to work on.”
Pitt’s offense is predicated by the way opposing teams defend ball screens. If they double or “blitz,” driving guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens have to pass.
“What teams have done is to try to be disruptive defensively and try and get the ball out of Xavier and Trey’s hands and make them be decision makers,” Capel explained. “I think we did some things against Robert Morris in the second half. But in that game, we were able to run offense in the second half. But in games like this, Florida State, even a little bit Nicholls, you can’t run offense. You have to play offense. We have to improve greatly in that area of being able to play offense, especially when teams try to take us out of what we’re trying to do.”
With Pitt having a hard time making interior touches turn into points, the obvious passes for the driving guards to make were to the outside: a Ryan Murphy on the near wing or a Champagnie or Gerald Drumgoole in the far corner. They made the passes, but Pitt didn’t make the shots.
“We got some wide open threes,” Capel said. “But at times, I thought we were rushed. We have a few possessions of no-pass, shot. I think what happens with us at times, especially when we’re struggling, guy know we’re struggling and say, ‘OK. I have to do it,’ instead of, ‘We have to do it.’”
Pitt can’t create a 6-foot-10 player with top-notch athleticism, a non-stop motor and deft touch at the rim from the players on the roster. They can’t even really simulate one in practice.
That means that live reps against West Virginia can actually help the Panthers’ decision-making guards learn on the fly when it comes to what can work and what can’t against players of Tshiebwe’s stature.
“It definitely helps, because we haven’t really been through a team like this,” Champagnie said. “Everyone is tall and athletic. It’s definitely a big help for us going on this season. It’s a learning point.”
“We think it definitely will help us,” Capel said. “We’ll use this to help us get better.”
Help is on the way. Capel has three commitments in the Class of 2020, all 6-foot-7 or taller. But for the rest of this year, they’d better take some lessons from Friday night’s in-the-paint beatdown.