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Pitt

Five things we learned from Pitt's loss to No. 15 North Carolina

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, 8:18 p.m.
North Carolina's Brandon Robinson defends on Pitt's Xavier Johnson in the second half Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 at Petersen Events Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
North Carolina's Brandon Robinson defends on Pitt's Xavier Johnson in the second half Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 at Petersen Events Center.

Cameron Johnson was struck by the fact that no one on Pitt’s roster was on the team when he played there. And the North Carolina graduate student has been gone for only 1 ½ seasons.

“It is a little weird. Every single player (wasn’t on the team for his final season in 2016- 2017),” he said after North Carolina’s dominant 85-60 victory Saturday. “Things turn over.”

Clearly, change has and will help the Pitt program, but it might take a while for positive results to show. Here’s what we learned after coach Jeff Capel’s first venture into ACC basketball as Pitt’s coach:

1. He sees a bright future … if he can recruit a bigger front line

Capel works hard at preparing his team for games, watching video, conducting tough practices and trying to find the right plays to combat the zone defenses that can give his team fits.

But his best work needs to be done away from the Pete in the living rooms and gymnasiums of the big and powerful high school prospects he is trying to lure to Pitt.

No doubt, Kene Chukwuka and Terrell Brown will work tirelessly this season against bigger and more agile post players, but they aren’t elite scorers or passers. Brown is third in the ACC in blocked shots (29), but Pitt has little presence around the hoop on offense.

Chukwuka didn’t attempt a shot in 11 minutes against North Carolina, and Brown was 2 for 6. Capel allowed himself a moment to ponder the future Saturday when he talked of building offense with more options.

“As we continue to get better players, we’ll be able to get a lob. We’ll be able to drop it off, and the guy can go up and finish and dunk,” he said. “We’ll be able to hit a guy cutting, hit a guy in the corner to make a shot. That’s something we’ll continue to do (this season), and as this team continues to get better, we’ll do that.”

2. Can Pitt shoot well enough to loosen up a zone defense?

So far, Pitt is missing two of every three 3-point attempts (187 of 279). Everyone but Malik Ellison and Chukwuka tried one against the Tar Heels.

Senior Jared Wilson-Frame shoots from beyond the arc more than anyone (32 of 84), but he missed seven of eight against North Carolina.

He is a confident shooter, and Capel trusts him. The best thing Wilson-Frame can do is keep firing away.

3. Can a team survive the rigors of the ACC with only eight players?

With Sidy N’Dir out for a few more weeks with a leg injury, Capel used only eight players Saturday. Everyone but Chukwuka played at least 21 minutes.

Freshman Xavier Johnson has played at least 30 minutes in nine of 14 games, and 18-year-old Trey McGowens is averaging 31 in the past three.

Perhaps that’s not a problem. Both of those guys are gym rats who love to play the game and do so with passion. But it’s becoming clear Capel can’t keep those two out of the game too long.

4. Rebounding might be improving

Lost in the avalanche of talent North Carolina threw at the Panthers is this tidbit: Pitt outrebounded one of the nation’s top rebounding teams 25-24 in the second half. Overall, Brown had nine, and Khameron Davis eight — both coming off the bench.

It’s a good sign because Capel emphasizes it to his players. It shows they are listening.

5. The ACC is a grind

After Pitt plays Louisville on Wednesday at the Pete, three of the next four games are against ranked teams: No. 18 N.C. State, No. 9 Florida State and No. 1 Duke.

Even if Pitt loses all three, the important point will be how they strike back the rest of the season.

“This is the best league in college basketball. Each and every night is another fight,” Ellison said.

Asked what he learned about his team, McGowens said, “I learned we’ll fight.”

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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