BLACKSBURG, Va. — In Pitt’s three games before its 67-57 loss in Blacksburg to Virginia Tech, the Panthers had allowed opponents to shoot over 45% from the field.
On Saturday, the Hokies continued then trend and shot it well against the Panthers. Even after a long cold stretch in the second half that let Pitt get back into the game, Virginia Tech still ended the game shooting at a 44% clip. To make things worse, those four teams have all shot 37% from the 3-point line, as well.
This Pitt team has been dubbed as a team that is known for its scrappy DNA, especially on the defensive end. But in the latter half of conference play, that hasn’t been the case. They look fatigued, out of place in their defensive gaps, and have struggled to frustrate teams, which leads to the hot shooting.
And individually, besides Au’Diese Toney, Pitt doesn’t have lockdown defenders, whether you look at its on-ball or off-ball efforts. Toney, along with the rest of Pitt’s guards, have grown accustomed to playing 30-plus minutes each game. But that’s still not an excuse.
“I wouldn’t say ‘tired,’” Toney said of the struggles against the Hokies. “It was just lack of communication on defense, knowing who you’re guarding at all times. There was a lot of movement, and a lot of it was just, like, head on a swivel, knowing who you were guarding, and they were just making shots.”
Toney hit the nail on the head. There were many times where Pitt looked lost as a unit. Guys didn’t know which guy to pick up in transition or found themselves gambling for steals while leaving an opponent open for a wide-open look.
That was a point of emphasis in Jeff Capel’s postgame press conference. It seemed as if each time Pitt made a couple of shots in a row, they followed the positive offensive play with breakdowns on defense.
“They got it to the middle, and instead of us flowing back, we tried to gamble and swipe at the ball,” Capel said. “Now, we’re outmanned right there. I thought early in the first half; I thought some of them came from over-penetration. They were able to get out in transition, and we didn’t communicate. To start the second half, that happened a couple of times, where we didn’t communicate in transition.”
Even though it seems as if the wheels are falling off at an inopportune time, that is even more clear when you take a look at their remaining schedule. Things don’t get any easier for Pitt, so much so that it’s probably its toughest stretch of the season. The Panthers’ last five regular-season games are against teams who are currently in the top-8 of the ACC standings. The gauntlet starts on Tuesday in Tallahassee against No. 8 Florida State. Then they’ve got two home games against Syracuse and Virginia, who are both desperate for wins, while they are sitting on the bubble to make the dance. And then they end the season with two road tests against NC State (also a bubble team) and Georgia Tech, who will undoubtedly want revenge against this Pitt team.
And in between games, there hasn’t been rest. But this just shows how mentally locked in that you must be in order to find success as a program, year in and year out. But right now, Pitt needs to find any ounce of energy that’s available.
“(We are) going to get back late (Saturday),” Capel said. “Not much they can do physically (on) Sunday because they play Tuesday at 8. Get on a plane on Monday. There’s not much we can do. We try to be smart because we want to try to conserve energy for the games. But this is the grind part of the season, and we have to figure it out.”
These little breaks that people from afar may not key in on while watching the games, turn out to carry a ton of weight on most of the outcomes in college basketball. Yes, Virginia Tech had lost five straight games, but they also didn’t have a game for a whole week and got to get some much-needed rest, while Pitt had to play on Wednesday at 9 p.m.
“When you have that (break), that gives you a chance,” Capel added “I was hoping they wouldn’t shoot the ball well today because I was hoping we would be there defensively. (But) they have young guys like we do. This time of year, it’s a grind. If you can get a couple of days away just to kind of refresh and get your body recharged and to work in practice — like, to actually work on some things — to show guys stuff, to watch the film, to do all these things and have time to prepare, that helps. I thought that really helped them tonight.”
But it’s certainly not an excuse for the way Pitt played in the first half, because they were still right in it, down the stretch.
COULIBALY STEPS UP
Pitt freshman Karim Coulibaly stepped in and played 19 minutes on Saturday, in large part due to Eric Hamilton being out with an ankle injury. Coulibaly finished with 10 points and five rebounds (both career highs)
“My brother’s (Hamilton) hurt,” Coulibaly said. “He’s injured, so coach told me I’m next. It’s a team. One man’s down next man up. That’s why I keep coming and play hard for my team for myself.”
Coulibaly has had an incredible journey to get to this point in his basketball career. Even though he hasn’t got a ton of opportunities, he’s done more than expected with those limited minutes. Capel said after Pitt’s win over Georgia Tech, that Coulibaly hadn’t played as well in practice as he seems to when he checks in on gamedays.
“My thing is I’m always ready to play,” Coulibaly said. “That’s what it takes.”
Coulibaly shot 5-of-10 from the floor, but like his teammates, he showed struggles on the other end. Virginia Tech doesn’t play with a traditional big. Everyone who’s on the court is a threat from beyond the arc, and Coulibaly saw that firsthand.
“It’s difficult because you have to go to them, [and] they’re a little bit faster than me and my boy, TB (Terrell Brown),” Coulibaly said. “That’s why it was not too easy. It was hard.”
LOST IN THE SHUFFLE
Junior shooting guard Ryan Murphy missed three games because of a concussion that he suffered in practice leading up to Pitt’s win at home against Miami on Feb. 2.
Murphy, who is averaging 9.2 points (39 3-pointers made) in 28.9 minutes per game, returned to Pitt’s lineup in its 20-point home loss to Clemson and also played in the Panthers’ game in Blacksburg on Saturday.
But the production has yet to be where it once was. The time off may have hurt the flow that Pitt’s offense once had with Murphy hitting shots and bringing a spark in any way possible.
In his last three games (Duke, Clemson, and Virginia Tech), Murphy has attempted just three shots in 29 minutes. He’s missed each of those shots and has gone scoreless since Pitt’s loss at Syracuse on Jan. 25.