PITTSBURGH — One win in a college basketball season almost never means that much to a team’s season.
The teams play upwards of 30 games. Everyone plays some cupcakes, some blue bloods and some games against evenly matched foes. Most of the time, one win or loss in any column doesn’t end up making a large difference in the final tally.
For major conference teams like Pitt, it’s impossible for one loss to sink a season, as the Panthers proved since rebounding from an ugly season-opening loss to now 2-7 St. Francis.
It’s equally unlikely that one big win can be program-changing, as well. The Panthers proved that last season, when they started the 2019-20 campaign with a huge upset win over eventual ACC champions Florida State. The momentum from that win lasted a matter of days, as Pitt dropped its second game to Nicholls State three days later and muddled its way to a 16-17 record in Jeff Capel’s second season.
Clearly, Pitt has had good wins under Capel, and even under his predecessor, Kevin Stallings, who beat Virginia and Maryland in 2016-17 before things fell apart. Nothing about the future is guaranteed.
But something seemed fundamentally different about Pitt’s 79-73 win over Duke on Tuesday night.
Beating the 2020-21 version Duke might barely qualify as a big win, as well, with the Blue Devils now losers of two straight, with a 3-2 league record, unranked and in the middle of the pack in the conference.
It’s not just the win over Duke, though. Tuesday night’s win was the Panthers ‘third in a row and fourth in five tries to start this season’s ACC play. This doesn’t feel like some unsustainable hot streak or some bubble about to burst.
In fact, on a whole lot didn’t go Pitt’s way on Tuesday. The Panthers allowed star Duke freshman Jalen Johnson to go off, with Johnson scoring 24 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and handing out seven assists before fouling out late.
Pitt shot 64.9% from the free throw line. Point guard Xavier Johnson was held to nine points and turned the ball over four times. Pitt got just seven points from its bench. Forward Abdoul Karim Coulibaly once again struggled with foul trouble and played just 25 minutes.
And yet, Pitt beat Duke and did so relatively comfortably. Pitt won by six, led for 37:33, and though Pitt let its big lead slide in the second half as Duke closed, the Panthers always seemed to have an answer.
Matthew Hurt hit a 3-pointer with 5:38 to play to draw the Dukes to within two, and Au’Diese Toney answered, drawing Jalen Johnson’s critical fourth foul and sinking both from the line. Toney went 13 of 17 from the stripe in a rough night at the line for Pitt overall.
Pitt’s lead remained three or more until the 2:03 mark when Jordan Goldwire scored from an in-bounds play to make it a two-point game. Xavier Johnson answered with a drive and a layup in traffic after shooting just 1 of 8 on the night before that.
Hurt again drew Duke to within two at 1:21 and it was Toney that threw down a dunk to win the game.
“The older players were stepping up more in that time to talk guys down,” Capel said “But we told them it was going to be a forty-minute fight, and we have to keep pushing. We have to keep pushing, even when we are tired and fatigued. … I thought Xavier made a big move down the stretch and got in and got a layup then right after that made a couple plays. Again, we were able to make plays because we knew it was going to be a forty-minute fight.”
And none of those crucial possessions involved Justin Champagnie, Pitt’s budding do-it-all star that scored 31 points, had 14 rebounds and five blocks and overshadowed the five-star prospect Johnson as the game’s best player.
Pitt didn’t play its best game against Duke. But it showed strong defense, a legitimate star in the making in Champagnie, a monster two-way player in Toney, got gutty point guard play from Johnson and a strong post presence from Coulibaly.
If Pitt can play a game with plenty of obvious flaws and beat Duke, it should be able to beat just about anybody if it puts together a complete performance.
Nothing about what Pitt did on the hardwood Tuesday night at the Pete feels like the Panthers shouldn’t be able to replicate that performance — or do even better — most every night the rest of the way through ACC play.
One game doesn’t change a program. Pitt will need to win those games in real life and not just on paper in order to actually become the team they look like they might be now.
But the perception has rightfully shifted. This is not a team that could be good. This is not a team on a trajectory to be good. This is a team that is good, and might end up being very good.
Combined with that upward trajectory, with just two seniors in the lineup on Wednesday, and it looks like Capel is well ahead of schedule in building the program back to what it once was.
Champagnie might have said it best:
“Pitt is back, that’s what I think it signifies,” he said. “I think that we are going to continue to keep this up and try our best and work hard and just take everything that’s not given to us. We feel like we’re not given a lot of credit in this league and we want to go out there show why we deserve the credit that we earned.”