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Pitt

Pitt prepares for ACC play by focusing on rebounds

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, 8:18 p.m.
Pitt’s Malik Ellison (left) and Central Arkansas’s Thatch Unruh (top) battle for the ball over Central Arkansas’ DeAndre Jones (55) during the first half Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Pittsburgh.
Pitt’s Malik Ellison (left) and Central Arkansas’s Thatch Unruh (top) battle for the ball over Central Arkansas’ DeAndre Jones (55) during the first half Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Pittsburgh.

Pitt sits at the doorway of what players, coaches and fans hope is a brighter future for the basketball program.

But before walking through it, the Panthers need to pay the price of admission:

Better rebounding.

Pitt (10-3) will play the first ACC game of coach Jeff Capel’s tenure at noon Saturday against No. 15 North Carolina (10-3) at a sold-out Petersen Events Center. Excitement will be high for the first game since students returned from the holiday break and the first sellout at the Pete since the Panthers’ 76-62 victory against Duke, also ranked No. 15, on Feb. 26, 2016.

But a stunning repeat of that game won’t happen unless the Panthers can stifle North Carolina’s advantage on the boards.

Funny thing about the Tar Heels: They are sixth in the nation and first in the ACC in rebounding margin (11.5 per game), but their two tallest players — Garrison Brooks and Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson, both 6-foot-9 — are shorter than Pitt center Terrell Brown, 6-10.

But that is of little comfort to Capel.

“We don’t have guys where rebounding comes natural,” he said. “We don’t have guys, with the exception of Au’Diese (Toney, a 6-6 guard), to go after the ball, to pursue the ball.”

Toney leads Pitt in rebounds with 6.2 per game, which is admirable for a player of his size, but it’s good for only 18th in the ACC.

“We’ve done OK at times,” Capel said. “This is a different animal. This is historically one of the better rebounding teams in country. They are relentless in their pursuit of the basketball.”

Pitt can’t win consistently in the conference without improved play off the glass, but Brown has offered recent hope. He’s totaled 18 rebounds in the past four games while scoring 10 points in two of the past three.

He hasn’t started since the opener, but in the past three games, he’s averaging five more minutes per game than starting center Kene Chukwuka.

Capel said Brown has impressed him with his work ethic and desire to improve, spending extra hours in the gym with assistants Tim O’Toole and Jason Capel.

“The big question about Terrell has always been his motor,” Jeff Capel said. “As we got to know him, you see he does want to become a good player. He wants to get better.

“He’s not afraid of the work. It’s just getting that motor revved up, and he’s worked hard.”

That’s the most reliable path to victory for Pitt in the ACC. The Panthers won 10 of their 13 nonconference games, but they were 11-2 in 2016 before losing 15 of 20 conference games.

The less meaningful games are over. Pitt must make its mark starting Saturday against one of the ACC’s powerhouse teams, followed by a home game Wednesday against Louisville (9-4).

Senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame, whose voice should be heard while he’s second in rebounding (5.0) and hitting a 3-point shot in 24 consecutive games, knows the team has accomplished little so far.

“We’ve played decent,” he said, “and I actually think we can show we’re a lot better than we have shown.”

ACC play is different, he said.

“Every single movement you take on the court is really important. Every time you glance anywhere, every inch of space is important.”

He believes the young lineup that includes three freshmen (Toney, Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens) is ready.

“There’s just a lot of excitement, especially with the new guys who are excited to play at this level in this conference,” Wilson-Frame said.

“This is a big game for any basketball player. You dream about being able to play against North Carolina.”

Wilson-Frame said Capel sent a message as soon as the team entered the locker room after its last nonconference game, a 68-54 victory against Colgate last Saturday: The season starts now.

“This is what we actually came here for,” the senior guard said. “This is what we prepared for. This is what we’re trying to change the culture for.

“When we see that hashtag #zooera, and we talk about all the things we want to do for this program in the future, it actually does start (now).”

Get the latest news about Pitt football and all things Panthers athletics.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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