PITTSBURGH — Pitt finished its non-conference schedule at 10-3 by beating Canisius on Monday at Petersen Events Center.
It was a mostly successful first half of the season for the Panthers, with significant progress shown by the young squad.
Head coach Jeff Capel ran down his team’s accomplishments in the first half of the season in his post-game press conference after beating Canisius to earn that 10th win on Monday.
“I think defensively, we’ve been pretty good,” Capel said. “I think we’ve played hard. Obviously, winning the tournament down in Fort Myers was a huge highlight and to beat Kansas State and Northwestern. To win our first conference game against Florida State was a big highlight, a top 25 team, and I think we’ve gotten better.”
Those things, and others, have given a solid sense of optimism around the program, and it’s deserved as Capel reaches the halfway point of his second season as Pitt’s head coach.
But it’s worth noting that 10-3 is exactly where the Panthers sat a year ago, before things went off the rails in ACC play. Pitt lost 15 of its final 18 games to start 2019.
Will 2020 fare better for the Panthers?
Capel believes the signs point to yes.
“I think we’re a better team than we were,” he said. “I think we have more experience. The core of our team will go into the meat of ACC play with it not being their first time,” he said. “Last year, the core of our team went into it and this was their first time. They didn’t know what to expect. We got out to a decent start and we hit a wall. Hopefully, we won’t hit a wall right now.”
Capel also pointed to the ability of returners Terrell Brown, Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney to not only have more success their second time through the ACC in Capel’s scheme, but also provide voices of experience for those going through it the first time.
“They’ll be able to help the younger guys on,” he said. “Last year, we had no one to do that.”
TOUGH ROAD AHEAD
The ACC schedule is almost never forgiving, and this year will be no different for the Panthers. They’ve already played a pair of Top 25 opponents in Florida State and Louisville. They’ll get both of those teams another time, plus current No. 1 Duke and always tough North Carolina on the road. Reigning national champs Virginia will visit the Petersen Events Center.
But there seem to be some winnable games on the ACC slate for the Panthers. Entering full-time league play ranked No. 76 in the country by KenPom.com, they’ll be favored nearly as often as they’ll be underdogs.
“It seems like Duke and Louisville are really, really good,” Capel said. “It seems like there are some teams that have struggled a little bit.”
Pitt has seven games against lower-rated teams and four more against Syracuse, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, which are rated in the 60s, just ahead of Pitt.
That combination has KenPom.com projecting an 8-10 finish for a 9-11 ACC record and an 18-13 overall mark in Capel’s second season. That would represent a five-game improvement from Capel’s first year and Pitt’s highest win total since Jamie Dixon’s final year in 2015-16.
It would also almost certainly assure the Panthers a postseason berth.
NEW FACES FINISHING
Pitt was led in its win over Canisius by the 3-point shooting of Justin Champagnie and Ryan Murphy, who led the Panthers to their first over-50% game from beyond the arc this season.
Both of those players have provided new elements to Pitt’s game that they didn’t necessarily have in the past.
Five years ago, Champagnie might’ve been called a small forward. These days, it’s hard to define the role he fills with a positional adjective. He shoots 3-pointers. He rebounds. He guards opposing guards. He guards opposing forwards.
“He can guard most positions. He also rebounds well and can shoot the ball. He can do a lot of things that we need,” said sophomore Au’Diese Toney and fellow versatile swingman.
Monday, he went off from 3-point range, going 5 of 6 after starting the season 5 of 37.
“I know I can always play better, but for my first year, I think I’m doing alright so far,” Champagnie said. “I just gotta consistently work on my jump shot and my handles.”
When added to Murphy, it created a potent long-range attack that can extend defenses and create gaps for slashers Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens to exploit.
“[Murphy] opens up the floor a lot for Trey and X a lot of players because he can shoot the ball well on the outside,” Toney said. “
ONE MORE ADDITION
Gerald Drumgoole is another player with a versatile defensive profile and the ability to hit from 3-point range, but he missed eight of the team’s first 12 games with an ankle injury.
Drumgoole returned to the lineup on Monday, playing in a little over four minutes as he works himself back into game shape.
Champagnie and Murphy were hot on Monday, but Pitt’s 3-point shooters have been inconsistent this season. Having another option to turn to will be pivotal for Capel for nights when some of the other guys aren’t hitting shots.
BIG PROBLEM SPOT
The area everyone knew Pitt needed to upgrade going into this season was forward, and so far, that hasn’t really happened.
Brown continues to be an excellent shot blocker, but has not improved his rebounding or scoring touch significantly.
Graduate transfer Eric Hamilton has helped at times, but has disappeared at others. He was benched after playing just four minutes on Monday for freshman Abdoul Karim Coulibaly.
No matter who was in at forward, Pitt was beaten on the glass by a not particularly big Canisius squad — not a good sign for when the larger squads of the ACC come calling.
“We have to understand that all five guys have to do it,” Capel said. “We do not have a dominant rebounder, we don’t have that. I’ve coached dominant rebounders and we don’t have that and all five guys have to do it. We have to do the dirty work and I thought this afternoon it was the first time in a while that we didn’t do the dirty work”