PITTSBURGH — In Pitt’s loss on Saturday to Syracuse, starting wing Justin Champagnie was charged with two fouls in the opening minutes of the game. Leading up to that game, he was presumably the guy that could operate in the middle of the 2-3 zone and could help rebound against the Syracuse bigs.
All season long, he’s been the glue guy that rounds out the Pitt roster.
But what happens when that guy — or really any guy — can’t be out there for the Panthers? That could be several players such as Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson, Au’Diese Toney, or Ryan Murphy.
Pitt has shown that they are not a very deep team. Many of their players bring sort of one-dimensional skill sets to the floor. When they are all on, they look like a cohesive unit. But if one of those main guys aren’t out there for whatever reason, things go haywire.
Pitt never found a replacement for Champagnie on Saturday. If Murphy isn’t playing well, where does Pitt get that shooting spark? If Toney is hurt [like he was for two conference games], who does Pitt have to guard wings such as Louisville’s Jordan Nwora or Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes? If McGowens or Johnson are on the bench, who else can create for themselves and others?
These are examples of Pitt’s small margin for error right now. But Saturday’s loss was eye-opening.
Champagnie went out at the 17:53 mark of the first half, and the Panthers trailed 2-0. When he checked back in at the 5:54 mark, Pitt trailed 28-10. The rest of the game, Pitt outscored the Cuse 51-41 for the remainder of the game, when Champagnie was in the rotation.
“That hurt us,” Capel said about Champagnie’s foul trouble. “We really got hurt on the glass in the first half.”
It wasn’t just the scoring that Pitt missed; it was a little of everything. But this scenario isn’t only on Champagnie. It’s a mark of where Pitt’s program is right now and where it’s heading.
“There is a fine line between winning and losing, period,” Capel said. “It’s all of the little things, but they are huge things. It could be a block out; it could be a missed defensive assignment, it could be not making the extra pass. It could be all of those things.”
Yes, Pitt’s team right now can win its share of ACC games this season. But it seems like everything has to go perfectly for them to beat the top-tier teams.
“Most teams don’t have a large margin for error,” Capel said. “We have a very narrow, very small margin for error, especially when we are playing against really good teams. Good teams make you pay for mistakes.”
Once Capel gets some more of those four or five-star prospects, that margin for error might loosen a little bit. Until then, near-perfection is going to be the order of the day.
“The team we are playing [Tuesday night] is a really good team, they’re elite,” Capel said. “So, you have to minimize mistakes when you play them in order to have a chance.”
Pitt travels to Durham, NC, on Tuesday to play No. 9 Duke (16-3, 6-2 ACC) in a game where the Blue Devils have had a week off since their last game. But, regardless if Duke has had a month or a day off since their last game, coach Mike Krzyzewski and company are going to be prepared.
“We have to be able to execute,” Capel said. “We have to do a good job in transition. And then Carey presents a problem for us inside, which he’s done for a lot of people this year.”
Duke freshman Vernon Carey is the clear front-runner to win ACC freshman of the year. He’s averaging 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds in just 23.9 minutes per game. These are the luxuries that programs such as Duke have right now over Pitt. The Blue Devils have ten players averaging over 13 minutes per game. Each player on its roster, besides its two walk-ons, contributes in a decent chunk of games.
Carey will be the most glaring mismatch that the Panthers have faced this season. The ACC doesn’t have bigs that pop out on paper this year. But even the big men who can hurt you like Carolina’s Garrison Brooks, or Notre Dame’s John Mooney, don’t have the perimeter depth around them as Duke has.
Duke’s Matthew Hurt, Wendell Moore, and Joey Baker all shoot over 42% from 3-point range.
But it’s worth noting. If there’s anyone who knows how to prepare for Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, you would think Pitt’s Jeff Capel is on that shortlist.