PITTSBURGH — Au’Diese Toney turned some heads during his 25-point performance against Duke last week, showing an offensive side to his game that he had not fully explored over his first season and a half with Pitt.
He seems convinced to prove that wasn’t a fluke.
Toney continued his hot streak on Sunday, scoring 15 points as Pitt topped Miami. It was the third time in four games he scored 15 or more points. In that span, he’s averaged 16.5 points per game and he’s not only playing the best basketball of his career, but he’s playing as well as anyone on the Panthers right now.
That’s coming despite a growing level of attention from opposing defenses. “He’s really a great athlete and he’s on a roll,” lamented Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga. “[He’s] shooting the ball well, especially driving to the basket, getting himself some layups, some offensive rebounds. He’s a kid you have to worry about when you are scouting them and we told our guys that. He’s really coming on strong at the right time.”
Pitt head coach Jeff Capel thinks its a combination of health (Toney missed two games earlier this season with a left elbow injury) and confidence in his second season of college basketball.
“I think it’s, the work. I think he’s healthier. I think he’s bouncier now and more confident in shooting the basketball,” Capel said.
For Toney, that bounciness — the ability to go over and around defenders to get to the rim — has always been there. It’s just been a matter of letting it loose.
“Just bringing the old high school Au’Diese back, that’s all,” he said, laughing with his teammates after the victory over the Hurricanes. That’s all it is, really. I used to dunk a lot in high school. I was like, might as well do it now. I have confidence in my leg and stuff. That’s why.”
He also credited his new closely cropped haircut for starting his strong run of offensive play. But it isn’t just the ball going in the basket. Toney grabbed 10 rebounds for his first career double-double on Sunday.
“Everything is just coming out of hard work,” he said. “Stuff like that is just coming along: picking spots, beating your man off the dribble, making midrange and 3-pointers. That’s all it is.”
Of course, even before this recent run of strong offensive play, Toney was already gaining a reputation as an elite defender on the wing. Throughout the season, he’s drawn the responsibility of covering most of the best players in the ACC and he’s done a phenomenal job.
“I think one of the things that’s gone very, very underrated is what he’s done defensively,” Capel said. “What he did to DJ [Sunday]; against Cassius Stanley against Duke. In the first half against Syracuse, he did it to Elijah Hughes and [Buddy] Boeheim went nuts. We made the switch and we shut down Boeheim in the second half. How he’s defended [Jordan] Nwora. I think he’s one of the better defenders in our league.”
Nwora is averaging 19.3 points per game this season. In Louisville’s two games against Pitt, he scored 19 (with Toney in foul trouble) and 14. Stanley has averaged 12.3 points per game and had 11 against Pitt. Hughes averages 19.4 points per game and had just 10 against Pitt, none of which were in the first half when he was being guarded by Toney. In the second half, Toney switched to Boeheim and held him to three points.
That’s three games against the ACC’s two leading scorers in Nwora and Hughes, and they’re a combined 13 points under their average against Toney and Pitt.
OUT OF THE ZONE
Pitt’s defense has been the strength of the team all season, with Toney serving as a key cog in that unit. They’re No. 69 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com and are No. 19 in turnover percentage and No. 39 in steal percentage.
But the offense has been another story. Pitt is No. 107 in adjusted offensive efficiency, which isn’t bad, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Because of Pitt’s defensive prowess, the Panthers have been able to get baskets in transition and before opposing teams can set up their entire defense, finding isolation situations to get players like Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens to the rim.
But when the defenses get set up and Pitt has to shoot, it doesn’t go so well. The Panthers are No. 306 in the country in effective field goal percentage and are No. 319 in 3-point field goal percentage.
Pitt doesn’t try to take a lot of 3-pointers. They’re No. 313 in the country in percentage of points from 3-point shots and No. 296 in percentage of attempts from 3-point range. But sometimes, those shots have to be taken to spread out a defense and keep those driving lanes open.
That’s particularly the case when facing a zone, and Miami made the switch to zone against the Panthers on Sunday, despite not playing much of it this season. It worked, with Pitt going cold attempting to shoot over it and looking hesitant attacking it through the middle.
“Well, we got good shots,” Capel said. “We got movement. We just didn’t make shots. And we were hesitant. The zone made us hesitant. We got movement, but when a guy is not guarding you and you’re missing shots, that can get in your head and that’s what happened. So we just have to be confident.”
Confidence is a tricky thing to build. Toney is feeling it going to the basket, but none of Pitt’s outside shooters are having much success, particularly with 3-point specialist Ryan Murphy inactive with a concussion.
But Capel still wants his players to be shooting if they’re open, in part to keep defenses honest and in part because that’s the only way to build that confidence.
“As long as they’re good shots, we don’t mind them because they’re our shots and we’ll live with the result,” Capel said. “I thought we were getting pretty good shots.”
Johnson and McGowens eventually found their strokes down the stretch, with McGowens making back-to-back threes and Johnson hitting each of his last three shots for seven points in the final three minutes of the game.
Capel’s strategy of letting his players shoot through it worked against Miami, but if more teams employ a zone look against the Panthers, they may continue to struggle offensively, at least until Murphy returns.
On that front, Capel had no update, saying he’s not sure if Murphy will be able to play when Pitt travels to Notre Dame on Monday.
In Murphy’s absence, Pitt didn’t give the regulars much of a break. Backup guards Gerald Drumgoole and Onye Ezeakudo combined to play just 11 minutes, while Toney went the distance, playing all 40. Johnson (39 minutes), McGowens (39 minutes) and Justin Champagnie (37 minutes) weren’t far behind.
“We don’t have a deeper bench,” Capel said. “Gerald played. Onye played. [Abdoul] Karim [Coulibaly] played. That’s our scholarship guys without Murph. And Onye’s not a scholarship guy. So, that’s who we have. That’s who we played.”
Ezeakudo, who played seven minutes in the first half, earned praise for his defensive effort from Capel.
Pitt has struggled to rebound all season, with typical four-guard lineup ceding a size advantage to most teams and forwards Terrell Brown and Eric Hamilton frequently overmatched against some of the ACC’s best with little help.
But one of the downfalls of Miami’s zone defense was that Pitt was able to make some hay on the offensive glass. The Panthers out-rebounded the Hurricanes, 40-31 overall, with their advantage coming nearly entirely on the offensive glass, with a 17-7 advantage there.
“We did a good job this afternoon,” Capel said. “I think Miami has not rebounded the ball well this year. I think when we played at their place, I think we got 16 offensive rebounds. So it’s something we thought we could exploit. We still have to do a better job.
We did a much better job in the second half today than we did the first, so we haven’t turned the corner but maybe we’ve put a little bit of an indent into the page.”