SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Imagine for a second that you’re Pitt head coach Jeff Capel and it’s the 2020 offseason.
Your team, which is probably just discovering what Zoom is, spent the latter half of the 2020 season looking abjectly lost on offense any time an opponent played a sagging zone defense.
By April, Capel knew that Pitt would play Syracuse two times this year, and as long as Syracuse is still coached by Jim Boeheim (and probably long after he’s gone), the Orange are going to feature a stout 2-3 zone defense.
Finding a rhythm on offense in the games against Syracuse would be crucial if the Panthers wanted to erase the label of “team that can’t beat a zone” in 2021, and doing so would be necessary for the team to reach its goals for this season.
It’s easy to imagine Capel spending this summer coming up with new game plans to attack the 2-3 zone with his returning players and finding ways into implement new weapons like guard Nike Sibande and forward John Hugley into that game plan.
Perhaps it’s because he’s been in the news recently after suffering an aneurysm, but I’m reminded of a Dr. Dre lyric:
“I’ve been in the lab / With a pen and a pad / Tryin’ to get this damn label off.”
The chance to show those improvements was scheduled to come on Jan. 16, when Pitt’s first game against Syracuse was scheduled to take place in the friendly confines of Petersen Events Center, with three full off days beforehand for practice and implementation of scheme.
Early this week, whatever plans Capel had drawn up for finding a way through Syracuse went out the window.
Due to a series of COVID-19 postponements at Pitt and elsewhere, the ACC moved Pitt’s road game at Syracuse up from Feb. 13 to Jan. 6. They did so on Monday, giving Pitt just one real day of practice time before facing the Orange.
Even, then the team practicing on Tuesday was not the squad Capel planned for all those months ago. Star wing Justin Champagnie is out several weeks with a knee injury. The team was nearly shut down the week before due to positive COVID-19 tests, at one point having just three available players, and still Sibande, Hugley, Noah Collier and assistant coach Jason Capel did not make the trip.
So the Panthers can probably be forgiven for not getting off to a particularly hot start on offense against the Orange. But that slow start was combined with a hot one by Syracuse and things looked dire quickly.
Xavier Johnson missed a 3-pointer. Ithiel Horton missed a 3-pointer. Johnson and Abdoul Karim Coulibaly had turnovers. William Jeffress missed a jump shot, and by the time Capel called timeout with 17:26 to play, Pitt was already trailing 11-0.
Three minutes later, Johnson earned his second foul and took a seat on the bench. Three-quarters of the way through the first half, the Panthers trailed by 18. At the half, the margin was 14.
The turnaround from there to what became a 63-60 Pitt victory — the largest second-half road deficit overcome in the over 100-year history of Pitt basketball — was remarkable.
Johnson and Au’Diese Toney, after combining for just two points in the first half, had 12 and 10 in the second period. Johnson was even more effective as a distributor, earning seven assists and Horton’s 3-pointers started falling to extend the zone. When Pitt missed, they got themselves another chance, with 20 offensive rebounds going for 21 second-chance points.
The offense broke out for 45 points in the second half against the Orange. The team scored just 49 points total in its last game against Syracuse in 2019-20 and had not scored 45 or more in a half against Syracuse since Jamel Artis went off for 20 points on Feb. 7, 2015.
After the game, Capel was quick to credit his team’s defense and rebounding efforts, and they were certainly crucial, critical factors in Pitt winning the basketball game.
But in the second half, Pitt was simply dominant on offense against not only a zone team, but a really good one, as the Orange own a top-25 overall defense according to KenPom.com.
In the second 20 minutes, the Panthers shot 45.9% from the floor, 37.5% from 3-point range and assisted on 12 of 17 made baskets while turning the ball over just six times.
“The second half, we did a much better job of of executing offensively,” Capel said in the understatement of the century. “We had 12 assists and six turnovers in the second half. Certainly it helped having Xavier back in there and I thought he was terrific.”
It didn’t seem like the Panthers re-invented the wheel schematically in that second period. They finally got some timely 3-point shooting from Horton, which helped force Syracuse to extend the zone, give Johnson to get to the basket and Femi Odukale and Toney room in the mid-range.
The experience of center Terrell Brown, who has been used sparingly this season, came up big when he filled in for Hugley to score eight points, including an alley-oop from Johnson to cut the Orange lead to one possession for the first time.
“We just attacked,” Johnson said. “We stayed in attack mode. We kept shooting our shots. IT was making a lot of shots. And I was happy for him. Diese made a couple threes and he got a put back to win the game. Femi contributed pretty well with a little mid range. Everybody did their part. In the bench, everybody was all into it and I’m just proud of outcome.”
One game — especially one half of one game — does not erase two seasons’ worth of failure, but what the Panthers put on tape against Syracuse on Wednesday will have any coach thinking twice about changing from what his team does best in order to match up the Panthers with a zone defense.
The comeback win over the Orange was huge for the Panthers as they attempt to navigate this weird season of basketball. They’re an unprecedented 3-0 on the road, and the 2-1 start to conference play, with a loss only to first-place Louisville, has them right in the the thick of the fight.
But if they’ve solved their problems with the zone, that might even be more impactful going forward. Pitt is built on attacking. Johnson, Sibande, Toney and Champagnie are all better players when they’re moving towards the basket. The zone forces them to be slower, more analytical and emphasizes shooting over athleticism.
Film is too available and coaches are too good for a team to only be good at one thing. Pitt proved emphatically last season that for a team to be successful, it can’t have such a glaring weakness.
Its removal on Wednesday could pave the way to a new chapter in Pitt basketball.
NEW BOARD MAN
Pitt has been a rebounding monster all season, with the Panthers now 10th in the NCAA among teams with more than two games played with a 42.8 rebounds per game average.
But a lot of that damage was done by Champagnie, who had two 20-rebound games before suffering his knee injury. In Pitt’s first game without Champagnie, they were dominated on the glass, getting out-rebounded 30-18 by Louisville.
Toney stepped up in a big way, grabbing a career-high 14 rebounds, including the offensive board that led to his put-back game-winner.
“The thing we’ve really tried to emphasize this year is the rebounding,” Capel said. “And we’ve been pretty good there. You know, I you know, knock on wood, we’ve been pretty good, we work at it. And I think the guys are starting to understand the importance of it.”
In Pitt’s season-opening loss to St. Francis, Capel said that he thought his team panicked after falling into an early deficit. It’s safe to say that trait has been erased from the Panthers.
For the second straight game, Pitt was under less-than-ideal circumstances and had a big hole only to come all the way back.
“We’ve gotten better, we’ve matured, we’ve learned,” Capel said. “I thought we actually got some good shots to start, we missed them. And then they hit three straight threes. And all of a sudden, it’s 11 to nothing.
“We kept fighting, I thought we got off to a great start in the second half. And we cut it we forced them to call a timeout, and all of a sudden, they push it back, they go on a run. And it was during that time that we didn’t panic again. So again, it’s about maturity, it’s about growing, it’s about learning and we’ve taken some steps there.”
With some empty seats on the flight, Champagnie was able to travel with the team, and he sat at courtside, cheering on the Panthers with encouragement, and at least occasionally, some advice.
“He was really good with the guys leading up to the game,” Capel said. “At halftime, after I spoke to the guys when they were getting ready to come out, he actually grabbed a couple of guys, grabbed the pen went to the board. I don’t know what he was writing was what he was doing, but he was talking to guys about the zone, about some things defensively. That’s big when when you have one of your better players doing that.”
K DAY FOR X
Johnson came into the game needing just two points to get to 1,000 for his career, and it ended up taking him an awfully long time to get there, with his early second half 3-pointer his first basket of the game after sitting most of the first half.
It’s sort of a fitting way to highlight the milestone in Johnson’s career. The first two and a half seasons for him at Pitt have been undoubtedly productive, as he became the 47th player in program history to reach the 1,0000-point mark. He also passed Darelle Porter for 46th all-time in Pitt scoring later in the game.
But there’s been plenty of frustrations around the overall productivity of Pitt’s offense over the last two seasons, and as point guard, Johnson has absorbed a lot of that criticism, despite being a crucial part of what Capel is trying to build.
“He’s meant so much,” Capel said. “He’s gotten better and better each year. He’s leading our league in assists. [In this game], to have seven assists and one turnover, and the majority of those were in the second half. … He’s grown. He’s matured. He’s gotten better. He’s learned the position. He’s always been competitive. He’s always been a fighter, but I think he’s learned how to channel that in a much better way.”