Louisville coach Chris Mack sees a Pitt team unafraid to 'run through walls'
When Louisville opened its ACC season Sunday with a 90-73 victory against Miami, six of the nine players who were in the game at least 10 minutes were juniors or seniors.
Someday, Pitt coach Jeff Capel might have the same luxury.
But, for now, he will meet Louisville (10-4, 1-0) and its first-year coach Chris Mack on Wednesday night at Petersen Events Center with his usual eight-man rotation that includes three freshmen starters and two sophomores off the bench.
Mack is impressed with how Capel has led Pitt to a 10-4 start after losing its ACC opener to North Carolina, 85-60.
“I think Jeff has done an amazing job,” Mack said. “He took over an extremely toxic situation. Guys were transferring left and right (after last season). There was not a lot of belief in the program.
“He’s doing it with a very, very young team. It’s hard when you don’t necessarily have built-in leadership. They’re in every game. They exceeded many, maybe not his, expectations, but how people felt coming into the year.”
Mack said winning with so many young players can be difficult “unless you’re talking about a Kentucky or Duke where those freshmen are ‘one-and-dones.’ Those guys are lottery picks.
“Even in those situations, you’re going to find kids who have to realize what it means to play hard every possession and to keep their concentration through the 30-second shot clock on both ends of the floor.”
Guard Xavier Johnson, who is the only Pitt freshman to score in double digits in his first 14 games, has had little apparent trouble adjusting to college basketball, at least the nonconference portion of it. He leads the team in scoring (16.3 points), but he said the game presents a significant difference from high school.
“For me, as a freshman, it’s hard to concentrate (every minute),” he said. “In high school, you didn’t have to concentrate that much. At this level, you have to concentrate every play down the floor. That one little mistake you make on the floor, that will affect the game.”
When Mack watched Pitt on video while preparing for the game, he noticed an important trait that could carry the Panthers this season.
“They play for one another,” he said. “They play hard on the defensive end, take charges. You always want to have guys who want to run through walls for you. When I watch them on tape, that’s exactly what I see.”
Pitt has played good defense for most of the season, partly because of a mindset in which players aren’t afraid to stand in the path of an opponent driving hard to the basket. Freshman guard Trey McGowens leads the team with 12 charges drawn.
“Coach, he always says you have to do the little things, you have to do the dirty work,” junior Malik Ellison said. “The energy plays. That’s what a charge is. It’s become a habit for all of us.”
Johnson said he learned in high school how to take a charge “because I wasn’t really a shot blocker.”
Taking charges can be painful, but Johnson didn’t mind after one particularly rough practice.
“I got a massage,” he said. “I was straight after that.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.