Kevin Gorman: Pitt pinning its hopes in post on Terrell Brown
Jeff Capel let out a chuckle late Wednesday night upon reminder that, at this time last year, he was coaching NBA lottery picks at Duke in forwards Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter.
The Pitt coach wasn’t laughing against Louisville when center Kene Chukwuka drew his fifth personal foul in overtime, joining Pitt’s Terrell Brown on the bench in disqualification.
But Capel did crack a joke.
During the shootaround, Capel had warned 6-foot-6 junior swingman Malik Ellison that he would play in the middle of the zone defense against the Cardinals at some point, to give his centers a spell.
“Now, I didn’t think it would be because both guys fouled out and we would have to do it for extended minutes,” Capel said, with a laugh. “When we got into that situation, I smiled and said to him, ‘I told you that you were going to play some five.’ ”
That was an overshadowed storyline in Pitt’s 89-86 overtime victory over Louisville, which snapped a 22-game regular-season losing streak in ACC play and a 12-game losing streak to the Cardinals: The Panthers played the final two minutes, 56 seconds without a forward on the floor.
Capel knew he was going to go perimeter-heavy this season, leaning on three freshmen guards as building blocks for the program. And the trio has delivered, serving as the catalysts for an 11-4 start (1-1 in ACC) that already eclipsed the Panthers’ 2017-18 win total.
Where shooting guard Trey McGowens scored a school freshman-record 33 points, point guard Xavier Johnson scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half and swingman Au’Diese Toney held Louisville leading scorer Jordan Nwora to 10 points below his 17.9 average.
But Pitt’s play in the post was pivotal to the outcome and will be instrumental to whether it can be competitive in the ACC this season.
Brown’s performance was proof it’s a possibility for the Panthers. The 6-foot-10 sophomore finished with 11 points, five rebounds and five blocked shots in 28 minutes. He scored nine points in a three-minute span late in the second half, including a pair of thunderous dunks sandwiched around a picture-perfect turnaround jump-hook.
“I was so happy for him because I know the time he’s put in on his game. He’s working, and it showed,” Capel said. “He was a player — he was a really good player. … Hopefully, that makes him hungrier for more and not just satisfied with what he just did.”
Brown and Chukwuma, for all of their offensive limitations, are effective at setting screens, altering shots and providing a presence in the post. But the Panthers knew they needed more out of the post, and Capel’s only option was to demand more out of the duo and Brown specifically.
Where Brown started 17 of 31 games for the Panthers last season, he was starving for a start since the season opener. Capel started Chukwuka instead but rewarded Brown for his recent play against Colgate and North Carolina. Over the past three games, Brown has averaged 8.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and six blocks. That’s almost double his scoring and rebounding averages of last season, and four times as many blocks.
“I realized I wasn’t given the job. Nothing was guaranteed, regardless that I started so many ACC games last year,” Brown said. “He wasn’t here. It’s a new year now. I just have to approach it a different way and hope for the best. Only I can affect what happens to me.”
The Colgate game was a confidence booster for Brown, who has a 73-inch wingspan and a 9-foot-1 standing reach. He scored 10 points, set a school record with nine blocked shots and added five rebounds. Brown has 18 blocks over the past three games, 34 on the season and is on pace to surpass his 46 blocked shots as a freshman by the end of the month.
“Since that game, it gave me an extra boost of confidence when it came to blocking shots,” Brown said. “I always knew I could block shots. Now, I just really hunt them more than I did before. Coach sees that and he made that known, that if you’re stuck TB is going to be there. And he just knows I’m going to be there. He doesn’t have to say it.”
What Capel is attempting to instill in Brown is that he can be a difference-maker for the Panthers, and not just on defense. Capel has implored Brown to get the ball and go hard to the hoop, and credited his ability to finish through contact.
“They gave me their trust, and they gave me the trust with the ball,” Brown said. “I have to take that ball and do the right thing with it.”
But having Brown and Chukwuka on the bench exposed Pitt’s lack of depth on the frontcourt, especially after the decisions by backups Peace Ilegomah and Shamiel Stevenson to transfer at the semester break. That places a premium on recruiting post players, which Capel continues to do after missing on five-star center Kofi Cockburn (Illinois) and four-star forward Akok Akok (UConn).
Until then, Capel has no choice but to get the most out of Brown and Chukwuka. Playing without either of them on the court in the final minutes was something Pitt would prefer to avoid, but it also showed the Panthers what they could overcome.
“We know we’re capable of it, especially with us sitting on the sideline,” Brown said. “We’re not just going to roll over.”
No, but you can’t blame Capel if he prefers his posts to play the five. And the better Brown plays in the post, the better the Panthers will be.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.