PITTSBURGH — Jeff Capel saw it coming.
The Pitt head coach had a feeling, based on his team’s history, that Wednesday night’s game against Clemson might be a game where the Panthers lacked some energy.
Pitt has struggled all season to come out with the proper level of fighting spirit when playing on the heels of a victory. It’s probably a big part of the reason they’ve won back-to-back games against an ACC team just once this year.
In practice leading up to the game, Capel had to pull off a juggling act of allowing his team to rest after a stretch of three games in seven days and before another such stretch, while also dealing with a lack of bodies due to injuries to guards Onye Ezeakuo and Ryan Murphy.
The result was a practice environment that had Capel even more concerned about his team’s energy level against the Tigers.
Those fears were well-founded as Pitt came out flat and was run over by a Clemson team that was just plainly hungrier.
“It all comes down to how we came out,” freshman wing Justin Champagnie said. “We came out flat. They weren’t really stopping us from getting our run on. We just came out flat and against good teams in the league, that doesn’t happen. You can’t just turn it on and off. …
“They just came out hungrier and ready to play because they came off a three-game losing streak. We just didn’t come out the right way. They sensed it and they took advantage of it.”
Pitt’s issues after victories have been well-documented. After a season-opening upset of a ranked opponent in Florida State that still stands up as Pitt’s best victory, the Panthers followed up with a five-point loss to Nicholls State at home.
When the Panthers went on the road and beat North Carolina on Jan. 8, snapping a years-long ACC road losing streak and winning the program’s very first game in Chapel Hill, they were so bad to start the next game that they allowed ACC bottom-feeder Miami to score the first 18 points of the game.
Pitt beat Boston College on Jan. 22, winning back-to-back conference games for the first time in four years, and then got its doors blown off by Syracuse in the first half. The Panthers beat Miami in the rematch at home and then were steamrolled by Notre Dame on the road.
Up and down, back and forth, almost cyclical. Pitt had then-No. 9 Duke on the ropes in its own building. Then-No. 11 Louisville needed overtime to win at the Pete.
They’ve played with some of the toughest competition in the country. They’ve also played down to some of their lowliest opponents. It’s enough to drive a coach crazy.
So when Capel was asked about it Wednesday night, he had some things to get off his chest. Here’s Capel’s lengthy answer to why Pitt has continually had to learn this particular lesson this season:
“We won Saturday. Obviously it was a big win and a good win for us. Just the energy in practice wasn’t what it needs to be. … I thought we played tired. I thought we looked tired. This is the time of the season where you are tired, but we have to be able to push through.
“That’s something that we’ve been trying to preach all year long and at some point, we have to figure it out. At some point we have to figure out the things that are required to be really good. That’s the goal for us, to be really good. Not for an individual to be really good. Not for a guy to get numbers or anything, but it’s for us to be really good consistently.
“You ask about a lesson learned. It’s the middle of February. We should’ve learned from Nicholls State in November, the second game. So at some point, guys have to listen. They have to get over themselves. They have to understand the requirements that it takes to be really good — consistently good. Not good for a moment, to become consistently good. As a program, we’re not there yet.
“We’ve taken some steps and we’ve done some good things. I don’t want to disregard that. But we’re not there yet. And at some point, after we lost to Duke … we actually did some really good things and at the under-4 minute timeout, we were in a position where we had a chance maybe to win. It’s a one-possession game.
“So I said to our guys, ‘We did some really good things in this game and we have to understand that’s the requirement. If you can do this here, in this environment, against this team, we should be able to bottle it. Hopefully we can bottle it up. … From now until noon on Tuesday, everyone is going to be telling you how good you are and how good you did. And at some point, that has to offend you. At some point, it has to offend you to be close. We’re not there yet.’
“When we get there — not if — that’s when we’ll take a giant leap as a program. So, maybe you do have to continue to go through these lessons to get the message across.
“Young people today, they’re so easily distracted. You can lose a game and I can talk to them — and this is not just our locker room, I talk to other coaches — and before you leave, 13 guys, are looking at their phone. By the time they leave the locker room, their mind may be off the loss. They may have gotten some texts. They may have looked at something on Twitter or Instagram. They’ve looked at some snaps.
“This (losing) kills me. I won’t sleep tonight. I was that way when I was a player. I often wonder if I had all these distractions, would I have been that way? But the game and team have always been sacred to me. And I don’t think I would have.
“We have to get to a point where this really bothers you and you have to change it. It’s not going to change. No one is going to feel sorry for us. No team in this league is going to feel sorry for us. So, we have to grow up and we have to understand that we are the ones that have to change it.”
The lack of energy for the Panthers was most evident on offense, where Pitt was passive and ineffective against yet another zone defense.
“We were just bad across the board,” Capel said. “Energy, communication, execution on both sides. A really disappointing performance from us.”
He also wasn’t willing to solely blame it on the Tigers’ use of a zone. That’s something that’s been a trend in recent weeks, with Georgia Tech and Notre Dame also making use of a zone defense to attempt to keep the Panthers from driving to the basket.
“Whether they were in man or in zone, we didn’t move,” Capel said. “We just stood around. And it was right from the start of the game. We talked about coming into this game that we had to move their defense. …
“We’re a driving team. If there’s no movement, there’s probably nowhere to drive. … Their defense was really good, but our offense was really poor, too.”
The Panthers missed six of their first seven shots and finished with a 31.3 shooting percentage.
NO NIGHTS OFF
The game was one the Panthers were supposed to win. Coming in as three-point favorites, the Panthers absolutely needed to hold serve at home against the previously 5-8 in league play Tigers if they wanted to entertain thoughts of making a run at an NCAA Tournament spot.
With six regular season games remaining, the Panthers will need to win five to reach 20 victories, and that slate includes a trip to now-No. 8 Florida State and games against fourth-place Virginia and fifth-place Syracuse at the Pete.
Of course, being a favorite doesn’t seem to mean as much in the ACC this season. Outside of the top three teams, everyone else is fairly evenly matched. Just 3.5 games separate fourth place from 14th.
Everyone is capable of beating everyone else. Last-place North Carolina just took Duke to overtime. Georgia Tech beat Louisville on Wednesday night. If anyone in the ACC has an off night, they can lose to anyone else.
Despite a season where many are saying the league is down due to a lack of dominant teams, the lack of any truly poor teams is making it a meat grinder for the middle-class teams.
“I think it makes it hard,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “I think the league is probably a little better than it’s getting credit for, because I don’t think there is as much of a bottom. I don’t know that there’s anybody in the league that can’t beat anybody else. That usually doesn’t happen.
“Usually, there’s two or three teams that are head and shoulders above and there’s two or three at the bottom and whatever’s left in the middle. … This year, it just seems like there’s three at the top and everyone else could be anywhere on any given night. It makes it really hard. If you’re not playing well, you’re not going to win, for sure. You’ve really got to be ready every night.”
Pitt’s lack of energy and slow start conspired to put the Panthers in a hole. But it was a hole that Pitt might have been able to climb out of if not for the shooting of the Tigers.
Clemson shot 50 percent from the floor and an absurd 59.1 percent from 3-point range, drilling 13 of 22 from long range and sinking Pitt’s comeback chances.
“Certainly, we don’t always shoot it like that,” Brownell said. “When you do, it makes the game easier. It makes you look like a better coach.
“These games, they don’t always have a lot of reason. It’s kind of a bad luck thing for Jeff and those guys because we shoot this well. We’ve had a lot of good shots in other games and we don’t make any of them.”
Clemson had played its previous game — a loss to Notre Dame — without forward Aamir Simms. Back in the lineup at Pitt, he was a massive difference-maker.
His stat line is a bit underwhelming, with 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting. But Simms also grabbed four rebounds — two offensive — and dished out five assists as a facilitator from the post for the Tigers.
The 6-foot-7 forward was an athletic mismatch for Pitt’s big men. After a few possession of seeing him dominate in the paint, Capel switched to a zone, only to see the Tigers hit every other 3-point shot they took for the rest of the game.
“He’s a good player for us,” Brownell said. “We use him in a lot of different ways. We use him in the top of the key, obviously in the post. … He just is another decision-maker, ball-handler. He can play in the post. He can drive it.”
Not only can’t Pitt’s bigs guard a player like Simms, they can’t even really simulate one in practice.
“We’ve never seen a player like Simms, I don’t think yet,” Champagnie said. “I wasn’t here last year, but they said he played the three last year. He’s playing the five now. It’s kind of a real big mismatch. He hurt us a lot. We’ve just got to be prepared and ready for whatever they’re throwing at us.
“He’s like a point forward. I don’t look at him as a five at all. He could play the three. He dribbles. He shoots. He’s a creator for the team. He’s their best player, I personally think. They pulled our big out of his comfort zone.”