Pitt basketball sits at 5-2 through its first seven games of the season, with its losses coming to two SEC teams: Florida and Missouri.
Through Pitt’s first four games, the Panthers looked about as impressive as possible. Bub Carrington exploded onto the scene with a triple-double in his first career collegiate game. Ishmael Leggett pleasantly surprised much of the fanbase with his outstanding play. Blake Hinson looked like Blake Hinson. The Panthers were scoring at an elite rate, reaching the 100-point mark in two of their first four games.
Then came Florida. The Gators, in Brooklyn, dominated Pitt behind a career night form Walter Clayton Jr. and suffocating defense that had the Panthers looking like a completely different group than we had seen start the year 4-0. In the second game in Brooklyn, Pitt took down Oregon State, which was a great bounce-back effort from the Panthers. Pitt owned the Beavers on both sides, getting back on track with a 76-51 win. Next on the slate was the Missouri Tigers, a team that had recently fallen to 0-5 Jackson State at home. Missouri was projected to finish ninth in the SEC in the conference’s preseason poll and was ranked as the No. 90 team in the country by Kenpom.com.
Pitt — favored by seven points going into the game — fell to Missouri by seven. The Panthers started the game strong, holding Missouri to just 17 points in the first 12-plus minutes of the game. However, the Tigers prevailed their behind strong-willed veterans Sean East II and Noah Carter. While Missouri certainly slowed the Panthers down, Pitt had its fair share of wide-open looks, which included an open three-point try by Leggett that would have cut the deficit to just one with 44 seconds remaining.
“I thought we got great looks,” Capel said after the game. “It was just one of those nights where we couldn’t make a shot. And for the first time this season, we allowed that to impact the game. We allowed it to impact defense, we allowed it to impact everything. So, it’s a learning lesson for us. You hate to do it in a loss, but we’ll learn from it, we’ll get better from it, and we’ll get ready for the next one.”
“When we get back together, we move on,” Capel added. “We flush it. Win or lose, the next day, you live with it, you learn from it. When we get back together, we’ll have some film, we’ll talk to them collectively as a group, we’ll talk to them individually, and we’ll get better. What’s the alternative? You know what I mean? The biggest thing is we have to stay together, we can’t point fingers. I was pleased after Florida, we didn’t do that. We got off the mat and we played really, really well, especially defensively, against Oregon State. I anticipate us getting off the mat again and playing well on Sunday.”
While the loss to Missouri will sting looking back at all of the missed opportunities, the Panthers quickly turn to another important matchup against Clemson on Sunday. The Tigers come to town after their recent massive win over Alabama on the road. In the win, PJ Hall had 21 points, while Joe Girard — yes, that Joe Girard, formerly at Syracuse — had 16. Chase Hunter added 15 as the Tigers advanced to 6-0 heading into their first conference game of the year against Pitt.
“We have to be able to be consistent in how hard we play,” Capel said on the Jeff Capel Radio Show on 93.7 The Fan hosted by Jeff Hathhorn. “We did that for the most part against Oregon State except for that one lapse. Against Oregon State, we didn’t allow our inability to make shots affect anything, because we really defended. Against Florida, I thought we got a little bit frustrated, we pressed, and that affected our defense in some spots.”
“It’s mostly mental toughness, that’s the big thing,” Capel continued on the show. “Again, we have guys that are playing a lot of minutes for us that are new to this level. So, being able to be understanding and to be able to know that you have to sustain this, you have to be able to concentrate, you have to be able to focus. You have to be able to be tired. You have to be fatigued. And then you can’t get down on yourself, or just get down and go inward when you’re not making a shot.”
After last year’s team went all the way to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, this year’s group returned just two starters: Hinson and Federiko Federiko. To fill the gaps left behind by last year’s star-studded veteran group, the Panthers brought in freshmen Bub Carrington and Jaland Lowe, as well as transfers Leggett and Zack Austin. While Leggett and Austin have proven themselves to be high-level players at the Division One level, both of them only had limited experience against high-major competition.
The competition has quickly ramped up for Austin, Leggett, and the rest of the Panthers. How will they be able to handle it?
We will see on Sunday, Dec. 3, as the Panthers host Clemson at 2 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center. The game will be televised on ACC Network.