PITTSBURGH — In the first three minutes of Pitt’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge game against Rutgers on Tuesday, the Panthers’ defense focus was Scarlet Knights guard and all-around best player Geo Baker.
In the first three minutes, Baker had five points as Rutgers jumped out to an early 7-3 lead.
Pitt head coach Jeff Capel sat point guard Xavier Johnson next to him on the bench. When Johnson re-entered the game, there was 14:35 left in the first half.
Baker had just four points the rest of the way.
“I thought our defense was good again, especially on their better players,” Capel said. “Baker was their leading scorer and assists. We held him to 3 for 11 and turned him over five times. I thought that was a big key to the game.”
But the reason he took Johnson out of the game was not defense, where Pitt has been good for most of the season, but offense, where he wanted Johnson to be more assertive going to the rim.
“We took him out because he’s going in and he’s not going strong,” Capel said. “He comes back and he goes in and dunks it. That’s who he is. That’s who he has to be. He’s not going to be some guy that’s a finesse guy. He needs to be a little pit bull. I think he did a better job of that.”
For Johnson, the two issues are connected. First of all, he does some of his best work in the transition game, which starts with good defense and getting stops and turnovers. But even more than that, he thrives on the confidence he gets from turning a good play at one end of the floor into a good play at the other end.
“Our defense starts our breaks,” Johnson said. “Off their turnovers, we feel good, because we played good enough defense to get a stop. We have enough to confidence to go score the ball at the other end.”
Pitt scored 28 points off 20 Rutgers turnovers, with only 11 of them coming in true transition. That’s a figure that Capel would like to see higher, but he’s still happy with the way that his offense and defense have been connected recently.
“I think we’ve done a better job this game and the last game of that, of scoring from defense,” Capel said.
While Pitt has been inconsistent on offense, the ability to start runs with strong defense is something that the Panthers should be able to lean on throughout the season. The Panthers are No. 24 in 2-point field goal percentage against, No. 38 in turnover percentage and No. 57 in overall defense, according to KenPom.com
“They’ve got great length,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “They play hard. They can switch a lot of things, too. They’ve got a lot of similar kinds of guys. Their athleticism is outstanding. They’re in gaps. … They keep you in front. They make you make tough 2’s. That’s the sign of a good defensive team.”