TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Pitt can beat Florida State.
We know that because the Panthers defeated the Seminoles at Petersen Events Center earlier this season.
Even last year’s Pitt team, which was almost universally worse than the one Jeff Capel has rolled out this year, was able to defeat Florida State.
So it can be done.
Even though Pitt’s victory over the Seminoles to open the season was a long ago, the Panthers proved in the first half on Tuesday that they can hang with the very best in basketball.
The Panthers trailed by just three at the break, and this wasn’t the same team that Pitt upset at the Pete in November. In that game, 7-foot Florida State senior Dominik Olejniczak didn’t play with an injury and 7-foot-1 freshman Balsa Koprivica was limited to just six minutes due to foul trouble.
Without their twin 7-footers in the middle, the Seminoles were able to be upset.
Tuesday, Florida State fielding a full lineup. And they got better. Koprivica, having adjusted to the NCAA officiating standard, had seven points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes. Olejniczak added eight points.
Freshman forward Patrick Williams has blossomed since Pitt last saw the Seminoles, as well. He had five points in the first meeting between the teams and went off for 16 on Tuesday night.
Pitt can beat Florida State, but under a specific set of conditions.
If Florida State plays like it did on Tuesday night, with 11 players appearing for at least 10 minutes, eight scoring five points or more and a full dozen grabbing at least one rebound, Pitt cannot.
After a hot start from Pitt, the depth and the talent level of the No. 8 Seminoles took over and the game was a laugher by the midway point of the second period. Pitt had no chance.
The Seminoles’ talent and depth of talent completely overwhelmed the Panthers, who were mentally and physically dominated by Florida State’s fast-paced offense and relentless defense.
They’re the No. 8 team in the country for a reason. Pitt isn’t in that class because the Panthers haven’t consistently played their best basketball, something that’s been a recurring a theme for them this season.
But that’s not what Tuesday’s loss was about. Even at Pitt’s best, it was going to be tough sledding for the Panthers against a rolling FSU juggernaut.
“I think they’re one of the better teams in the country,” Capel said. “They’re a team that I think is definitely in contention for a Final Four. They have a chance to win it all. They have experience. They have great depth, talent, length and athleticism.”
Florida State’s rotation is a monster. The Seminoles’ go 11 deep better than just about anyone in the country, and Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton has formed a game plan designed to maximize that depth.
On defense, the Seminoles suffocate the high post and don’t allow other teams to run a lot of screens and motions, relying on their shot-blocking giants to clean things up at the rim. It results in a lot of a one-on-one dribble drives for opposition teams.
That’s actually Pitt’s strength, but when forced to drive into the teeth of the FSU defense over and over again, the Panthers’ guards wore down. In the first half, they found Terrell Brown and Au’Diese Toney for dump offs and easy buckets, but a defensive adjustment took that away and Pitt’s offense was ground to nothing by the middle of the second half.
Then the Seminoles got out in transition, as they love to do. Florida State is 85th in the country in adjusted tempo and gets outstanding vision and spacing from senior guard Trent Forrest on the rush. When they don’t score in transition, the Florida State offense is constantly in motion, wearing down defenses over the course of a game with their size and relentlessness.
“Our system emphasized ball movement and player movement,” Hamilton said. “When you have quality depth, you want to move. That has a tendency to take a toll on your opponent.”
Of course, it’s a lot easier to be relentless when you’re playing 20 minutes instead of 40. Pitt’s big guns simply ran out of gas in the second half against the Seminoles.
“It’s really hard and frustrating because you don’t have the fresh legs playing 30 minutes a game,” Toney said. “You’ve got to dig through and push through adversity.”
The combination of depth, talent level and a scheme to match was just overwhelming for the Panthers.
“I just thought their athleticism and depth overwhelmed us throughout 40 minutes,” Capel said.
That’s a problem that Capel can’t fix. At least, not for the 2019-20 season.
Pitt has just 11 healthy scholarship players players, of which only nine saw the court on Tuesday. Junior guard Ryan Murphy, still clearly not fully back into the swing of things after missing some time with a concussion, played just nine minutes.
The vast majority of the heavy lifting was done by just seven players against Florida State. Given the Seminoles’ depth and talent, that’s just not enough.
But there aren’t any more players that are going to walk through Jeff Capel’s door, at least not until the Class of 2020 enrolls this summer.
Capel seemed displeased about the line of questioning, but delivered with a fantastic response about the Panthers’ lack of depth.
“We need time,” Capel said. “I’ve been here for a little bit over a year. We need time to recruit and we have to win some recruiting battles. It’s gonna happen, but it’s not gonna happen right away. Maybe because of the start we got off to, people thought this was going to happen quick. It’s not quick. It was a dumpster fire that I took over and we’ve done a really good job.
“Those guys have fought and we’ve put ourselves in a position where we’ve won more games than we did last year. We’ve won more conference games. There’s an energy about our basketball program right now. But it’s not going to happen over night.
“We have to be able to recruit. We have three guys that we’re excited about coming in. We have a kid sitting out I think that’s really good. So if we can keep the core together, along with some of the guys that we have, we’ll get quality depth.
“We do not have it right now. There’s nothing that we can do about that right now.”
Of course, there are things in the control of Capel and the players on the roster that could have at least kept Florida State within reach. Pitt’s offense once again stagnated when confronted with a zone, a familiar bugaboo.
“I was shocked to see them go to a zone,” Capel said. “That’s something you don’t see out of a Florida State team that much.”
The Panthers also didn’t get to the free-throw line nearly as frequently as they did in upset wins over Florida State the last two seasons.
“I don’t think they stopped us from getting to the lane, we just didn’t get fouls,” Capel said. “They did a better job of playing us without fouling.”
Senior forward Eric Hamilton dressed for warmups and appeared to be ready to go. With Florida State’s two giants and talented freshman forward, it appeared that Pitt would need all three of its bigs to battle in the paint.
But Hamilton never enter the game. Capel said he was physically ready, but just didn’t play.
Instead, freshman Abdoul Karim Coulibaly played 16 minutes and recorded six points and three rebounds.
It’s just one game, but it could be a sign that the freshman has earned more playing time in Capel’s eyes.
“Karim played well at Virginia Tech, so we went with him,” Capel said;.