PITTSBURGH — For the second time this season, Pitt’s starting point guard Xavier Johnson started the game on the bench on Wednesday, in what became a 74-73 Pitt loss to NC State at Petersen Events Center.
If head coach Jeff Capel is consistent in his messaging, Johnson should expect to find a seat on the bench to start Pitt’s next contest, as well.
For the second straight game, Johnson, who has been struggling with foul trouble off and on all season, received a technical foul that put him in deep foul trouble. Against NC State on Wednesday, it was a gesture and a shout at the Wolfpack bench after making a 3-point shot that earned Johnson the unnecessary whistle.
The technical foul earned Johnson a seat on the bench, and he found himself back there when a common personal foul gave him four for the game with 8:30 to play. Johnson played just 19 minutes against NC State after appearing in only 20 minutes against Georgia Tech on Saturday. Against the Wolfpack, he scored 14 points despite the limited minutes, but his absence was felt. Pitt outscored NC State by six with Johnson on the floor, and was outscored by the Wolfpack by seven without him.
In his third season as Pitt’s starting point guard, Johnson has not necessarily made the on-floor progress that some had hoped. He’s averaging 14.1 points per game, a significant increase from last season’s 11.7, and handing out more assists at 6.1 per game entering play on Wednesday compared to 4.9 per game a season ago, while not turning the ball over anymore.
But his minutes played per game has dropped from 33.2 as a sophomore to 28.2 as a junior and that’s largely because of his continued foul trouble.
Capel has defended Johnson walking the line when it comes to aggressiveness in the past. Johnson has been the victim of several block/charge calls this season at both ends of the floor, always borderline propositions, and as Pitt’s usual lead on-ball defender, Capel wants Johnson playing with the energy and effort that might occasionally lead to some foul calls.
But the there’s a difference between aggressiveness and a lack of discipline and the latter has reared its head frequently this season. Against Notre Dame, Johnson took an unnecessary and undisciplined foul after missing a layup, then earned a technical foul afterward, fouling out of the game with over 10 minutes left to play.
Against Georgia Tech, Johnson earned a double technical after jawing with Jordan Usher. Capel said after the NC State game that Johnson — along with Ithiel Horton — was benched for the start of the NC State game because of that technical foul against Georgia Tech and that he’s implored his point guard to modify his game to earn less attention from officials.
“They got technicals last game,” Capel said. “Just like in the Notre Dame game. When they got technicals, we didn’t start them in the game after that.”
If Capel is consistent with his practices, that means you can expect Johnson to start Pitt’s game against Florida State on Saturday from the bench, as well.
Of course, freshman Femi Odukale, who has replaced Johnson in the two games that he has not been in the starting lineup, was also called for a technical foul against NC State after getting tied up with Jericole Hellems.
Capel, also was called for a technical foul by Jamie Luckie after charging out to protest the call against Odukale. It’s unclear if Capel’s brand of justice applies to himself.
Earlier in the season, an official stopped the game to give Johnson a warning for yelling “and one” after a made basket, something that earned Ithiel Horton a technical against Georgia Tech and a seat on the bench alongside Johnson to start the NC State game. He has also been issued a flop warning at least one this season.
Capel’s technical was at least his second of the season. The Panthers are clearly gaining a reputation as a team that does not mind running afoul of the game officials.
“The referees, I guess they’re tired of it,” junior wing Au’Diese Toney said after the game. “We always get called with it the most. We’ve just got to stay poised and just talk to Pitt. … I feel like we do have a reputation with the refs.”
While Capel getting the occasional foul to stick up for his team is probably understandable and might even be warranted, he needs his starting point guard on the floor if the Panthers are going to be successful.
The first time he benched Johnson, against Virginia Tech, he responded with a career high 32-point performance and Pitt earned a much-needed victory. Against NC State, it was more of the same hotheadedness that got Johnson in trouble against Georgia Tech. It was telling that after Johnson was called for the foul, Capel’s first words in response were not to an official, but to Johnson, who quickly made his way to the bench.
“Nothing I’ve said has worked,” Capel said with obvious frustration after the game. “I’ve been telling him for two and a half years now: ‘Stop talking to the refs. Stop being demonstrative.’ So, nothing we’ve said has worked.”
Johnson is unquestionably talented, and among Pitt’s best players when on his game. Later in the game, Johnson, while leading Pitt to a comeback from a double-digit deficit to within one shot of beating NC State, made an almost impossible behind-the-back move on a fast break.
At the end of that clip, you can see Pitt assistant coach Tim O’Toole exhorting Pitt’s players to get back quickly on defense after the fast-break score.
They did not. NC State went right back down the floor and forced a foul by Terrell Brown. The two points that Johnson so spectacularly earned were gone in a flash.
That’s the way it’s been for Pitt this season. They can do some very, very impressive things, and sometimes they can’t get out of their own way.
Would Pitt have won the two imminently winnable games against Georgia Tech and NC State if they had played a more disciplined brand of basketball? It’s impossible to say for certain.
It’s equally impossible to imagine them doing any truly great things until they can clean up their own game.