Three things we learned about Pitt basketball
First, Pitt coach Jeff Capel needed to turn the page. He did that without hesitation, inserting three freshmen into the starting lineup from the start of the season.
Then, Pitt started to win at a little faster pace than a year ago. The Panthers take a 7-3 record into its current weeklong break for final exams, compared to 5-5 under former coach Kevin Stallings. Baby steps but progress nonetheless.
In 24 days, however, the difficult part starts, with the ACC opener Jan. 5 against No. 12 North Carolina at Petersen Events Center. Overall, Pitt will play seven of 18 conference games against schools presently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
Is this young team ready for that gauntlet of opponents? Who knows? But these players will do nothing less than attack all foes with gusto, win or lose.
Here are three things we’ve learned about Pitt through the first month of the season:
1. Pitt’s rebounding could be a seasonlong issue
The Panthers are challenged in the height department, with five starters who average only 5.4 inches over 6 feet. If that sounds like an excuse, Capel won’t accept it.
Pitt is not a good rebounding team, a deficiency that could be improved — but not until next year — by 6-10, 230-pound four-star high school center Qudus Wahab. He plays at Flint Hill School in Oakton, Va., and he said he will announce his choice of colleges Thursday from among Pitt, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Georgetown and Connecticut.
The Panthers are ranked 225th among 351 NCAA schools in offensive rebounding (9.8), with an overall margin of plus-1.2 (184th).
Capel explained the issue on the defensive boards:
“We still have guys at times leaking out,” he said, referring to players getting a head start on the fast break. “We have to gang rebound, all five guys.”
It’s a case of simple mathematics. The more arms and bodies flying to the ball, the better chance Pitt has to gain possession.
Freshman guard Au’Diese Toney, 6-6, leads the team with 6.2 rebounds per game, better than older, taller teammates Kene Chukwuka (5.1) and Terrell Brown (4.3).
2. These guys are not afraid of anyone
The loss to West Virginia on Saturday was a sloppy mess, with Pitt’s flow constantly interrupted by 26 fouls and 24 turnovers.
But they played with courage. Freshman guard Xavier Johnson said he was proud of teammate and roommate Trey McGowens for the way he constantly attacked the rim, even though it was often guarded by WVU’s Sagaba Konate.
Konate is 60 pounds heftier and 5 inches taller than McGowens and Johnson, who combined for 39 of Pitt’s 59 points.
3. Capel is building his program his way with his players
Newcomers have accounted for 68 percent of the scoring, with 28 double-figure games, led by Johnson (10) and McGowens (seven).
And they have plenty of time to accomplish much more. Toney and Johnson turned 19 within the past two months. McGowens won’t see his 19th birthday until two months after the end of the season.
Johnson leads the team in six important categories:
• Assists (49)
• Minutes (29.5)
• Scoring (16.8 points)
• 3-point shooting (42.4 percent)
• Free-throwing shooting (82 percent, tied with McGowens).
• Turnovers (35)
Capel will learn to live with that last one.
It’s unfair to compare previous Pitt guards to Johnson. Those players weren’t asked to carry the same load as freshmen as Johnson. But he already has scored more points (168) in his first season than Ashton Gibbs, Vonteego Cummings, Curtis Aiken and Darrelle Porter.
Meanwhile, Capel hasn’t forgotten about two important holdovers from last season.
Even though he is not in the starting lineup as he was 14 times in 2017-18, senior Jared Wilson-Frame is second in scoring (12.6) and the team’s most active 3-point shooter (24 of 58, 41.4).
Junior center Kene Chukwuka, 6-9, is a hard-working rebounder (5.1 per game) and a player who often gathers players together for those important but brief on-court meetings Capel demands.
Chukwuka has started nine games — one more than last season — and leads the team in field-goal percentage (21 of 39, 53.8).
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.