PITTSBURGH — Coming into Tuesday’s game against Jacksonville, Pitt point guard Femi Odukale had been shooting just 26% from three-point land on the year.
In the recent win over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, the Brooklyn native went just 1 for 12 from the field, and 0 for 3 from three-point range.
Pitt knows that it does not have a lot of shooters on the roster, but Odukale shooting 26% from the guard position while playing over 30 minutes a game was limiting Pitt’s versatility in a major way.
His poor shooting led to guards like Jamarius Burton, Onye Ezeakudo, and Will Jeffress, and even bigs John Hugley and Mo Gueye forcing outside shots.
“Before the game started, I watched the St. John’ game three times, because I had a bad game and I hate having the feeling of playing bad in front of everybody, letting them down,” Odukale said after the game on Tuesday. “So, this game I made sure, before I go home, I’d play with energy and show people what I can really do.”
In Tuesday’s win over Jacksonville, Odukale lit it up from downtown. He came out of the gates hot, draining his first three threes in an 11-point first half effort.
“I thought Femi, to shoot the basketball like he did, from three and from mid-range, was huge for us,” Jeff Capel said after the game.
In the second half? More of the same. He went 2 for 4 from beyond the arch in that frame, bringing his game total to 5-7 from three-point range, as well as 9 of 13 overall. This brought his season percentage up ten points, all the way to 37% from three.
Odukale also hit a few mid-range jumpers, a few longer jumpers near the arch, and made five free throws. His offensive arsenal, which, for the first time this year, included a confident three-point stroke, was on full display.
Once Jacksonville realized that Odukale was going to keep hitting threes, it was forced to make adjustments on the defensive end. While its initial strategy was to pack the lane and limit Pitt’s slashers, including Odukale, it now had to shift its focus to the outside, which then opened up the lane for forwards like Gueye to start attacking inside and in the mid-range game.
If Odukale can keep up his hot shooting from this win, Pitt’s offense can take the next step and improve its versatility as a team.
TAKING CARE OF THE BALL
Ahead of Tuesday’s game, Pitt came in ranked No. 270 in the nation in turnovers per game, averaging 14.6.
The Panthers have struggled to take good care of the ball all year, and have had games with as many as 32 turnovers. Against West Virginia, that game in which they turned it over 32 times, seven different Panthers had at least two turnovers, headlined by Odukale’s eight.
Then came Tuesday’s game, and the Panthers looked like a completely different team in regards to ball-handling. Against Jacksonville, the Panthers took care of the ball better than any other game all year, only turning it over six times in the nine-point victory.
“I thought we were stronger with the basketball,” Capel said postgame. “They didn’t really pressure. They don’t really pressure, they don’t pick you up full court or in passing lanes. So we were able to make plays, to make passes and do that.”
The Panthers found their shotmakers and kept feeding them throughout the game. As a team, they shot 38% from the field and 33% from three-point range, finding success behind Odukale, Gueye, and Burton.
“I think their game plan was to make us shoot,” Capel continued. “They went under, they backed up. So I thought that helped us out a little bit. When they started to do it, I thought we had counters to it. Some things that we worked on, getting rid of the basketball quickly, meeting passes, being strong, making the easy pass right in front of you, and making those plays.”
EARLY FOULS THROWING HUGLEY OFF HIS GAME
In the win over Jacksonville, John Hugley, the team’s leading scorer, only put up eight points, his second straight game scoring less than ten.
In both of those games, Hugley picked up two early fouls, prompting Capel to sit him for basically the rest of the half.
While Hugley has not fouled out of any games yet this season, and while both of the last games he only picked up three total fouls, when he is on and off the bench throughout the game, he has struggled to find consistency on the offensive end.
In Tuesday’s win, he went just 1 for 8 from the field, and scored six of his eight points at the free-throw line.
Hugley has picked up at least two fouls in all but two of Pitt’s 12 games this season, and if those fouls continue to come early, they will continue to haunt Hugley and get in the way of productive, consistent nights on offense.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW? PANTHERS MOVE INTO CONFERENCE PLAY AT 5-7
On Nov. 1, less than two months ago, Pitt took on Gannon in an exhibition contest to open up the 2021-22 season.
In that game, disaster struck. Nike Sibande tore his ACL.
Days later, wing Ithiel Horton was arrested and suspended from the team indefinitely.
While this was all happening, Jamarius Burton was also rehabbing a knee injury and was out for the time being.
Then came the season-opening loss to The Citadel. A day later, Pitt’s lone commit, four-star Judah Mintz, de-committed from the program, leaving many hopeless.
Now, through 12 games, Pitt sits at 5-7 with losses to The Citadel, Monmouth, UMBC, Vanderbilt, Minnesota and more, and victories over St. John’s and Colgate, among others.
Undoubtedly the Panthers would be a completely different team with Sibande and Horton in the lineup. Those two were two of the strongest shooters and playmakers on the team last year and were bound to have big years this year.
While they may not have put up 20 points a game each, they would have put pressure on defenses from the outside with their shooting ability which would have allowed guys like Burton and Odukale to focus on slashing and mid-range buckets. It would have allowed Hugley to attack the inside without facing instant double teams.
You’d have to think having a playmaker in some of Pitt’s low-scoring, slim losses to teams like Virginia, Monmouth, and Minnesota would have helped immensely and carried them to a few more victories prior to conference play.
Now, Pitt looks ahead to Notre Dame after Christmas, still without Horton and Sibande.
PANTHERS MAKE IT THROUGH COVID-RIDDEN FIRST HALF OF SEASON
In a season in which countless teams have lost multiple players and coaches for weeks at a time to COVID-19, Pitt has certainly lucked out so far.
Pitt survived its first twelve games without having to pause its season, as many teams have done lately. The Panthers have not been forced to cancel any games, or forfeit any either.
“I’ve been concerned. I am not one of these guys that thinks, or has thought at any point that this thing is going away. So yeah, I am concerned. We’re in a very dangerous time right now and we need everyone to be safe and just follow whatever protocols that your state or your city or whatever it is is there. We want everyone to stay healthy.”
Two ACC teams, Wake Forest and Boston College, were set to play on Dec. 22. Due to COVID positives in the BC program, the Eagles were forced to forfeit the conference matchup.
For a team like Pitt that will be grinding for any and all wins throughout the year, let alone conference battles, it cannot afford to lose a game via a forfeit.