PITTSBURGH — Pitt lost by 15 points to The Citadel on Tuesday. If someone from 2015 woke up from a coma, they’d be pretty confused by that sentence.
Not all that long ago, Pitt was a basketball power, and even after they declined from the peak of the Ben Howland-Jamie Dixon era, they were the kind of team that very rarely let their guard down against inferior competition.
Tuesday, the most surprising thing about the Panthers’ loss to the Bulldogs was that it wasn’t surprising.
Yes, Pitt was without guards Jamarius Burton (knee surgery), Ithiel Horton (suspended) and Nike Sibande (knee surgery). Those losses significantly changed the outlook for the Panthers this season
But perhaps even more than that, I don’t think there is any faith in Pitt’s ability to take care of business against an inferior opponent. Give one team nine ACC scholarship players and the other a bunch of kids from a military academy and I know which one ought to win.
The Panthers have not just under-performed on the whole in Jeff Capel’s tenure, they’ve also specifically failed to take care of this exact situation. Pitt lost to Niagara in 2018, Nicholls State in 2019 and St. Francis in 2020. Why wouldn’t they lose to The Citadel in 2021?
I don’t know that it’s a death knell for a program that we can’t have faith in them to beat lesser teams. But it certainly can’t be a good sign. And with so much player movement in so many directions, the lack of consistency is becoming the hallmark of the Capel-led Panthers.
It seemed that Capel attempted to meet that issue head-on this offseason, with the additions of veterans like Burton, Mo Gueye and Dan Oladapo and a junior college player in Chris Payton compared to just one freshman. The idea of a rebuilding older team should be that it plays smarter.
That didn’t happen. Burton is out, Gueye underwhelmed, Oladapo and Payton barely played, and the losses of Pitt’s internal seniors Horton and Sibande more than offset any potential gains in experience and trustworthiness.
So Pitt is back to the drawing board, with another team that is going to rely on young players that are going to struggle at times and let lesser-talented teams impose their will.
The other hallmark of Capel’s teams has been the ability to offset some of those difficult losses with impressive wins. Pitt beat Florida State right before losing to Nicholls in 2019. The Panthers beat Duke and a Top 20 team in Virginia Tech last season.
If the 2021-22 season isn’t going to be an abject disaster, Pitt had better hope that trend holds, too.