RALEIGH, N.C. — Saturday afternoon represented something of a weight lifted from the Pitt men’s basketball team.
Yes, the Panthers lost once again, for their sixth straight defeat in what is rapidly becoming a disappointing finish to the 2019-20 season.
But after a few straight games in the wilderness, Pitt got back to looking like the Pitt team that inspired NCAA Tournament talk through the first two-thirds of the season.
Pitt’s guards got down hill, the wings made athletic plays at the rim and the generally out-manned forwards did just enough on the glass to keep the Panthers in it. If not for an unusually poor day at the free-throw line, the Panthers would have likely upset the tournament-bound Wolfpack.
But after looking like a group of players that simply wanted to go home on senior night against Syracuse on Wednesday, the renewed fight and passion was certainly a positive for the Panthers.
“I’m proud of our effort,” head coach Jeff Capel said. “I’m proud of our fight. We put ourselves in a position to win the game. … We looked like the team that we’ve been.”
I asked Capel why he thought his team went from looking throughly defeated to one that again looked like it could play with anyone in the span of three days. He didn’t have a firm answer.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We had a couple days of preparation and we fought. We fought together today.”
While the Panthers certainly should take credit for the mental energy required to shake off a loss that Au’Diese Toney called “an embarrassment,” from my courtside seat at PNC Arena, the biggest difference between Pitt’s moribund Wednesday and upstart Saturday was the opponent.
Specifically, it was the opponent’s defense.
It’s been no secret that over the last two seasons, Pitt has struggled mightily when presented with a zone defense. The Panthers’ preferred method of attack is to use slashing guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens to penetrate and break down defenses, with them either taking it to the rim themselves or finding wings Justin Champagnie and Toney for easy baskets.
Toney feasted on NC State on Saturday, going off for 24 points on an absurd 9 of 13 shooting.
“It’s just the spacing and opportunities, picking the right spots,” Toney said. “It starts with [Johnson and McGowens.] They get a lot of attention. When they kick the ball out, it’s just making the opportunity count.”
Against the zone of Syracuse or Virginia’s pack-line scheme, that initial penetration is simply not regularly available, breaking down much of Pitt’s offensive scheme before it gets started. Since the midpoint of this season, almost every opponent has tried out some type of zone or zone-adjacent defense to try to limit Pitt’s guards.
Even notoriously man-heavy Florida State broke out a zone, with Capel saying he was “extremely surprised” to see Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton make that switch.
If anything, the fact that NC State didn’t try to play more zone should be the surprise. At this point, it’s clear that if a team is serious about limiting the Panthers offensively, it should start with a zone or other penetration-resistant defense.
NOT THE WHOLE STORY
Of course, the problems against the zone represent only one half of basketball’s equation. Pitt remains an above-average defensive team capable of turning opponents over at an elite rate.
Couldn’t the Panthers simply lock down defensively and turn those games where teams want to play zone into low-possession rock fights?
Perhaps, but the young Panthers seem to be lacking the emotional maturity to keep their offensive struggles from leaking into their defense at this point. Pitt has the 316th-most experienced Division I basketball team out of 358. Grinding through bad shooting days is not something that is yet part of their mental repertoire.
“You can see it,” Capel said. “They’re frustrated. Sometimes, it effects our defense.”
OLD SOLUTION TO A NEW PROBLEM?
It was not all that long ago that the idea of Pitt struggling against a zone defense would have fairly comical.
Former Pitt head coaches Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon had unlocked the secrets of it to a point where it seemed that Pitt couldn’t wait for games against zone teams. Of course, the most notable zone-playing team on Pitt’s schedule during that era was Syracuse, and the results speak for themselves.
Dixon, in particular, seemed to own the Orange. In his tenure at Pitt, he went 15-7 against Syracuse
Former Pitt guard Ronald Ramon sits at the end of the Panthers’ bench as assistant director of operations. Ramon went 5-1 as a Pitt player under Dixon against the Orange, and while we are now all aware that he’s not allowed to help coach, he could certainly hand over the game plan used by those teams.
But it isn’t quite that simple.
MISSING THE KEY PIECE
Pitt simply doesn’t have the kind of players that are required to beat a zone.
I asked Pitt fans on Saturday to name some players from the Howland and Dixon teams that seemed to do particularly well against zone defenses in their time at Pitt.
Panthers fans came up with at least 20 names. The ones that were most commonly mentioned were Jamel Artis, Jaron Brown, Ashton Gibbs, Lamar Patterson, Ramon, Nasir Robinson, Chevon Troutman and Sam Young.
Robinson and Troutman were the runaway leaders, though I personally think Artis and Young were under-appreciated. Regardless, of that group that was repeatedly mentioned, a good percentage of them have one thing in common: they can shoot threes.
Artis, Gibbs, Patterson, Ramon and Young all had career 3-point shooting percentages over 35, with Gibbs’ absurd 41% leading the way.
Pitt doesn’t have a single one of those this year, with Ryan Murphy leading the way at 33%. While Pitt has gone on its late-season slide, Murphy has been a non-factor. He missed time with a concussion has hit just 1 of 10 from long range since returning. He did not score and played just three minutes against NC State.
As a team, Pitt is 333rd in the country in 3-point field goal percentage. Again, that’s out of 358 teams. It’s clearly a fairly significant weakness.
Pitt may have some help coming in that department. Sophomore guard Ithiel Horton shot over 40% from 3-point range as a freshman at Delaware. If Murphy returns to health and form, he could provide another.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Inside, Pitt’s answer seems even closer to hand. The three players that Pitt fans listed as zone beaters that were not elite outside shooters were Brown, Robinson and Troutman.
I tried to put together what made them good against the zone and came across a pretty striking similarity: none of them were that good early in their career. Brown averaged 5.7 points in three games against Syracuse as a freshman. Troutman averaged 5.5 and Robinson just 2.0 in their first years.
All of those players eventually were able to put up bigger numbers against Syracuse in their careers, but it was a slow build, even for the best of Pitt’s best.
Pitt freshman wing Justin Champagnie has a lot of similarities to that group of players. At 6-foot-6, he’s an inch shorter than Troutman, but an inch taller than Robinson and two inches taller than Brown. His 25.7% career 3-point shooting percentage trails Troutman’s 29.5%, but is better than either of Brown’s or Robinson’s marks.
In essence, he’s a small forward that is not an outside shooter. But he’s also had success against the zone. In fact, more than his predecessors in that role. In his first two career games against the Orange, he’s averaged 13.5 points — nearly as many as the other three combined.
Further development could have Champagnie as the guy that Pitt fans talk about in years to come as a zone-beater. But he needs the outside help to make the full package work.
Troutman and Brown had Donatas Zavackas (a 40.5% 3-point shooter), Carl Krauser (36.8%) and Antonio Graves (37.9%) to shoot over the top of the zone and open things up. Robinson had Gibbs (41%) and Young (35.6%).
If Pitt can find a 3-point shooting option for 2020-21, a lot of Pitt’s problems with the zone can be ameliorated. And if Pitt’s opponents stop playing so much zone and other conservative defenses, the Panthers have proven they can pick apart a man-to-man look.
In summation, yes Pitt has allowed its offensive struggles to infect other parts of its game, a hallmark of an inexperienced team. And yes, other issues have caused specific losses, like Saturday’s poor free-throw shooting, and an overall lack of depth, which Capel suggested may have contributed to that poor performance from the line via some tired legs.
But the overall theme of Pitt’s slide through this February has been other teams being able to take away Pitt’s first, best option for creating offense, Pitt not having an answer for that, and its game falling apart as a result.
A reliable option from 3-point range would not fix all of Pitt’s problems, but it would be one step forward in fixing what ails the Panthers.