PITTSBURGH — In each of Pitt’s first two seasons under Jeff Capel, the team, largely under-manned and out-gunned when it came to depth of talent, hit a wall toward the end of the season.
In 2018-19, Pitt started league play 2-2 with wins over Louisville and Florida State before losing 13 consecutive games to fall out of contention. Last season, it was more of the same, on a slightly smaller scale. Pitt was 5-6 in the ACC before losing the final eight games of the regular season.
So when the Panthers lost three straight games against Wake Forest, North Carolina and Notre Dame, and didn’t even appear to give their full effort for 40 minutes against the Irish, it was easy to think that another late-season slide was coming.
That’s probably unfair, as this is a patently different Pitt team, that has shown itself to be deeper and more capable than the previous two. But that’s how people’s brains work. “Here we go again” is any easy thought to let creep into your ahead, and you can be assured that thought at least entered the minds of the players that have lived through it the last two years.
“It’s not a good feeling,” junior wing Au’Diese Toney said. “Everybody had their heads down. That’s the feeling we had all freshman year when we were losing. I just don’t want to go back to that.”
“It was a time that our coaches told us that we had to draw a line in the sand,” junior point guard Xavier Johnson said. “We knew we were a good team at first, but then we just let it go, let all the self esteems come in between us.”
Head coach Jeff Capel, who has professed that he tries not to look forward or back, even within this season, let alone over the course of his three-year tenure, still acknowledged the urgency of the situation created by the three-game slide.
Another moribund performance, with the team looking lackluster, heading into a game at Virginia on Saturday, where even good teams can get frustrated, and it would have been pretty easy to envision Pitt’s season completely falling off the rails.
There’s no guarantee that it won’t at some point, either, but the immediate crisis was averted on Wednesday, as Pitt successfully drew that line in the sand with a standout performance against a very good Virginia Tech team.
“I thought we looked like the team the we’ve been the majority of the season,” Capel said. “We had a three-game stretch where we did not play well. We didn’t have the edge. And then one of those games, we didn’t play hard. We didn’t compete like we have been.
“There was a sense of urgency. We talked to our guys. We had to fix it. These are things we can fix. I know it’s in there, because we’ve seen it the majority of the season.”
No one was more emblematic of the change in the Pitt team from one game to the next than Johnson.
Held out of the starting lineup for just the second time in his career, Johnson responded in a huge way. He found out that he wasn’t starting just about 10 minutes before tip-off, but Capel was just coming through on a threat made earlier in the week.
“I told my team on Monday when we came back that we would not have the same starting lineup,” Capel said. “I didn’t know who will start, but it won’t be the same, it will be determined by want happens in practice. I made the decision and let them know at the 10-minute mark before the game, as we were going through warmups.”
He thought that Johnson and Ithiel Horton were mature about starting the game on the bench.
“They were great,” Capel said. “They were all about the team, all about us, and that’s how we all have to be.”
“I feel like I haven’t been performing the way I’m supposed to perform lately,” Johnson said. “It just woke me up. It just made me more humble and I came into the game ready to play.”
Johnson, of course, was outstanding, scoring a career high in points after sitting the first five minutes, and setting a Pitt record for points from the bench.
“I don’t think his mission was to score 32, I think it was just for us to play really well,” Capel said. “He’s really important for us. I think he is one of the better guards in our league and I think he has the ability to be really, really good. … We know that he can score. I just thought he played under control.”
TAKING A LOAD OFF
Johnson’s outburst came as Virginia Tech largely limited ACC leading scorer Justin Champagnie. Champagnie scored 10 points, or about half of his average, while the Hokies spent most of the early part of the game double-teaming him or denying the entry pass.
Champagnie’s production did not dip during Pitt’s three-game losing streak. What had been missing was some other players around him stepping up. Johnson and Toney had both been performing well below their career averages offensively. Someone needed to step it up.
“Justin has been performing,” Johnson said. “He’s been our best player for the whole year. They keyed in on him. I saw that the couldn’t get that many touches and somebody else had to get going. Somebody had to step up. … Other guys got going. I told Au’Diese and IT (Ithiel Horton), ‘Keep shooting. We’re going to have to make shots.’”
Capel said that the decision to shoot his way out of the slump, because that’s what the team needed him to do, is emblematic of Johnson getting to the core of one of the issues he’s had. Johnson’s occasional lapses in productivity have not been selfish or from a desire to do anything other than help the team win. What’s been lacking at times has been his ability to determine exactly what the team needs the most.
“The really good point guards have the ability to understand what the game needs, what the game calls for,” Capel said. “Sometimes, that could be double-figure assists, low scoring, great defense. Sometimes, it could be 30 points. X has the ability where he can do both. It’s just the understanding each and every day and every game what the game calls for.”
LEADING THE WAY
Part of that understanding might have come from a little meeting between team captains Champagnie, Johnson and Toney in between the games, called by Toney.
“I just let them know, everything was one me,” Toney said. “We got it back in practice.”
“Diese stepped up,” Johnson said. “He told us it’s a lack of leadership and it’s on us. Me and Justin looked at ourselves, too, as well.”
Johnson had fouled out of the Notre Dame game after an undisciplined foul and an inexcusable technical. Horton was seen leaving the floor before the final buzzer. There were some small signs of this team beginning to give in to the stresses of losing.
But whatever was said between the team’s leaders this week seems to have worked. Pitt’s 40-minute effort against the Hokies was one of its best of the season.
TECH IS GOOD
Lost in the fact that this was a game that was really important for Pitt to win because of everything that was going on with Pitt is the fact that they beat an extremely good Virginia Tech team.
The Hokies lack the star power and name recognition of some of their ACC brethren, but no team has been as consistently good as the Hokies this season.
“We beat a very, very good basketball team,” Capel said. “A team that had been playing as well as anyone in our league, coming off a huge win over Virginia when they played really well and a team that’s very, very well coached.”
The win was Pitt’s first against a ranked team since January 2019, when they beat Florida State in two overtimes, the second in the Jeff Capel era. Pitt beat two ranked teams in 2016-17, one in 2015-16.