PITTSBURGH — For those who assumed that Thursday night’s Pitt men’s basketball season opener against St. Francis was going to be easy, they may have been right though not quite in the way they suspected.
St. Francis bested Pitt 80-70 at the Petersen Events Center in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score indicated.
The Red Flash smacked Pitt in the mouth in many different facets of the game and did so playing together and in character. Pitt appeared lost at different points of the contest and that it was a step behind its opponent.
St. Francis coach Rob Krimmel had the benefit of his team getting a full 30 practices in before the start of Thursday’s contest, but admittedly he was not sure how that would translate against an opposing team.
That seems much clearer now.
For one, St. Francis was able to play a textbook zone and Pitt was not able to utilize its height advantage inside. Passes were not being rotated quickly enough.
Perhaps this is part of Capel’s repeated statement about his team having a lack of energy, specifically at the beginning of the game.
“We talked about wanting them to feel us,” he said. “We talked about how about when we score we want to pick up and we did not do that. Right away they were able to get into a rhythm offensively. We did not pressure, we did not contest. I thought we would have been excited, we would have been really ready to go. I don’t know if it was nerves or jitters, but they smacked us right in the mouth and we panicked.”
Towards the end of the first half, Capel was quite demonstrative as he was showing his team how he wanted it to defend. Very shortly after, Saint Francis marched down the court and scored on a reverse layup, showing that Pitt still had room for improvement. It did appear that Pitt was just going through the motions, perhaps still deflated from the tough start.
Again it came down to energy, and Capel confessed that he has seen this at times in practice.
“Today we went against a team that cut, communicated and make their defenses work, man and zone,” said Capel. “It took too long, it was similar to last year where when it starts to happen, it snowballs. It took us getting to halftime to get there.”
DEFENSE NOT GOOD ENOUGH
Capel correctly identified defense as a focal point and an effort which his team could control, but when Saint Francis scored 10 of the game’s first 12 points there was a choice to be had and the commitment was just not there.
Saint Francis shot 50% from the field in the first half and was able to put its shooters in positions of success time and again. Pitt’s defense appeared to be in a trance at times watching Saint Francis’s many cutting actions.
“Sometimes when you don’t come out with energy out of the gate it is hard to play from behind,” freshman Will Jeffress offered. “We were flat coming out and our intensity dropped as St Francis pulled away.”
Pitt at times appeared dead on its feet defensively and it also appeared at times to not be on a united front defensively, as evidenced by an eerie quietness. This quietness was not because of a lack of fans, rather on a lack of dialogue on the court.
Saint Francis was clearly a united front on both ends of the ball, largely playing textbook basketball, while Pitt was left scratching its head.
“When things aren’t going right we stop talking to each other,” junior guard Au’Diese Toney said. “We think that’s going to solve it and it’s not. That showed tonight as well.”
QUESTIONABLE SHOT SELECTION
With Saint Francis in a zone defense for a good portion of the defense, Pitt had the opportunity to use it advantages both in height and physicality, but in reality squandered both of those options.
Pitt was inconsistent with its inability to read the Red Flash defense and react accordingly.
Instead it decided to make the game a three-point shooting contest, a blueprint which certainly did not work Thursday, nor last year when shot at a 29.6% clip from deep.
This held especially true in the first half was 4-for-18 on its trifectas, while Saint Francis was 6-of-14 and valued its post touches more as a way to rotate the ball to find a higher-percentage shot.
“We panicked in the first half when we couldn’t make a shot,” Capel said. “They prey off of that.”
Pitt became more one-dimensional and hopes for an offensive rebound which more often then not led to a junky putback.
When Pitt did get the ball into the post neither John Hugley nor Terrell Brown had consistent success. When Hugley did score it was on a a second attempt or after repeated misfires on the offensive end. When Brown came in, it was a similar story.
Toney was Pitt’s lone consistent spark in the first half as he scored the team’s first eight points, but soon after picked up his second foul. Though he did return to the game after some time on the bench, the absence seemed to freeze Pitt where it was throwing up shots with little rhyme or reason.
“I don’t think we shot the ball very well tonight.” said Jeffress. “I know we are a team that can shoot and tonight was a night the ball didn’t fall in. We have to keep our head up and not let one result define us.”
With Toney and Xavier Johnson both in foul trouble, this was a good time for Pitt’s bench to start to get into the act, but of the six Pitt reserves to see the court in the first half, only sophomore forward Abdoul Karim Coulibaly was able to score.
Pitt finally has the depth Capel has desired but it did not come on until it was already too late. Sure it outscored Saint Francis 17-14, but with the Red Flash not having a significant enough drop off in the second half, a three-point advantage truthfully does not mean much.
It is worth mentioning Jeffress was a plus-8 in 20 minutes on the court and his play impressed Toney, but the overwhelming majority of that came in the second half when the team showed some fight, which made it easier to produce.
Granted, a lot of Pitt’s depth is younger and largely unproven but everyone is in the same boat, day one of a season that has been unique in a lot of respects.
“We have a lot of younger guys and they get down on themselves a lot,” said Toney. “It is tough to lift them up sometimes. It’s your first college games, there are going to be lots of jitters but at the end of the day it is just basketball, play your game. I try to lift them up everytime and tell them to keep shooting… Maybe (they were_ expecting more fans or energy. We didn’t carry the same energy that we usually have. We struggled with that.”
TOO MANY TURNOVERS
Pitt did not value the basketball as evidenced by 23 turnovers and Saint Francis getting 11 steals to its four.
There was already a significant enough disadvantage with Pitt not being able to handle Saint Francis’s unlimited ball rotations but those problems compounded on offense. With the shots not falling, Pitt was in the Christmas spirit as the Red Flash recorded 27 points off turnovers, a 15-2 advantage in the first half. Johnson himself had six of those miscues in the first half.
For a team which averaged 12.2 turnovers per game to eclipse that in the first half shows that there is a lot of work to be do.
“I don’t think it’s an easy fix,” Capel said of addressing his team’s shortcoming. “We collectively have to understand. We’re not as good as we thought we were. We have a chance to be good and all of these things are required to be good. If you don’t have energy, it’s not going to happen. If you don’t value the basketball, it’s not going to happen. It sucks that it took losing for maybe a lesson to be taught, but that’s what it is.”