Kevin Gorman: Pitt trying to remain positive in the face of adversity
Where Jim Boeheim was impressed with Pitt’s freshman guards for the way they aggressively attacked Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, Jeff Capel was learning to live with every mistake the young Panthers made.
There were ill-advised passes that led to turnovers, open looks that resulted in missed shots and controversial calls for which the Pitt coach simply had no understanding and received no explanation.
Despite a second-half scare that saw a 16-point lead shrink to three, Syracuse cruised to a 65-56 victory over Pitt on Saturday night at Petersen Events Center. It marked the fifth consecutive loss for the Panthers in ACC play since beating then-No. 11 Florida State on Jan. 14.
Pitt (12-10, 2-7 ACC) is facing its first stretch of adversity under Capel, who won 10 of his first 13 games before a 25-point loss to North Carolina in the conference opener. The good news is the Panthers only play three more ranked teams in the second half of league play. The bad news is there’s no guarantee they can beat any of them.
“Adversity is something that you have to go through, especially when you’re building, when you’re starting from the ground up,” Capel said. “You go through tough times, and you have to stay together. You have to stay connected, and you have to try to stay positive. All three of them are difficult — and the last one is probably even more difficult — but you have to do it.”
Capel is correct, that remaining positive is most problematic for the Panthers. The obvious is they are overmatched in size and depth in the frontcourt, something Syracuse 6-foot-8 forward Oshae Brissett exploited in an 18-point, 12-rebound effort.
Instead, Capel pointed to statistics that show the difference between winning and losing for these Panthers comes at the free-throw line. The game plan is for point guard Xavier Johnson and shooting guard Trey McGowens to attack the rim and either score or draw fouls, a difficult task for any player against Syracuse’s zone.
“We’re trying to make them shoot it from the outside and not let them get into the lane,” Boeheim said. “But they get into it anyway because they’re driving. They’re good, physical guards, but it’s not easy in this league for freshmen.”
Johnson and McGowens are finding that out the hard way, especially in getting calls. In the first four ACC games, it worked. McGowens made 36 of 49 free throws, and Johnson made 28 of 33. In the next four games, Johnson was 10 of 14, and McGowens 2 of 4 from the line.
“We’re still driving. We’re still attacking the basket,” Capel said. “These last four teams, they’re good but, man, I don’t think they’ve mastered defense or mastered verticality. That’s just an interesting thing to me, and that’s been a big part of our offense.”
Against Syracuse, Johnson was 9 of 12 — missing two that could have cut a 39-36 lead to one — and McGowens was 3 of 3, thanks to a couple of controversial calls. McGowens drew a foul on Brissett with a leg-kick on a 3-pointer at 18:35, which led to his three free throws and complaints to officials from Boeheim and Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara. Later, McGowens made a long-range 3, but the basket was inexplicably waived off by officials and he was called for an offensive foul.
But Boeheim is right. It’s not easy for freshmen in the ACC, nor does the conference make it easy on them. And Pitt is only as good as the two freshmen guards who account for 47.5 percent of their scoring.
That Johnson and McGowens combined for 17 points — 13 below their scoring average — was a big blow for the Panthers, even though Terrell Brown scored 16 points (on seven dunks) and Jared Wilson-Frame added 12 (on four 3-pointers).
Since scoring 33 against Louisville and 30 against Florida State, McGowens has been held to single digits in four of the past five games.
“He just needs to play better, period,” Capel said, “and he will.”
Johnson shot 2 of 11 from the field, including 1 of 5 on 3s. When the freshman duo isn’t scoring, Pitt tends to struggle on offense. They got two points from their bench, and that was on a layup by Sidy N’Dir with 27 seconds left in the game.
What is impressive is the Panthers continue to stay connected and play together through their adversity.
Much to Boeheim’s chagrin, Pitt outscored Syracuse, 34-30, in the second half. The Panthers also won the battle of the boards, 39-35, despite going one stretch with no player on the floor taller than 6-foot-6, and cut a 16-point deficit to within three.
But Capel is committed to building Pitt’s program from what he calls Ground Zero, using Virginia’s Tony Bennett as the example of an elite ACC program winning with lesser talent than the McDonald’s All-Americans that litter the rosters of his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and rival Roy Williams at North Carolina.
“I know we want to win,” Capel said, name-dropping Duke superstars. “We’re going through a lot. We have to rely on freshman, and freshmen hit a wall. We have regular freshmen, and they’re really good but not Zion. They’re not RJ. They’re not Bagley or Carter or Tatum or those guys that are like super-human. When they hit a wall, they hit a wall. And we’re going through that. We have to help them get through it.”
Capel has no choice but to stay positive, knowing that he’s building a Pitt program that has nowhere to go but up – even if the Panthers are trending in the opposite direction.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.