Kevin Gorman: ACC debut a dud, but Pitt has nowhere to go but up under Jeff Capel
Jeff Capel’s concern — the Pitt first-year coach quickly corrected himself to change the word of choice from fear — was that his Panthers would be overwhelmed by the environment.
After all, this was Capel’s first ACC game as Pitt’s coach and the first conference game for four Pitt players, including the three freshmen guards who are starters and the program’s building blocks.
“There’s going to be incredible excitement. The first conference game was against the University of North Carolina, so for four guys this was their first conference game — to play North Carolina,” Capel said. “And then it was going to be the first time where they’ve run out of the tunnel, and the place was full.”
That’s how far the Pitt basketball program has come under Capel: He was worried about the atmosphere of playing a perennial power and the nation’s No. 15 team before a packed Petersen Events Center, just a few months after the arena was so empty you could hear a pin drop.
This is how far the Panthers have to go: North Carolina 85, Pitt 60.
And it wasn’t that close. Pitt started fast, and junior Malik Ellison tied the score with a tip-in to make it 12-12 at 13 minutes, 40 seconds in the first half. Then the Tar Heels went on a 19-2 run as the Panthers endured a scoring drought of 6:39. Carolina led by as many as 33 points late in the second half.
“It was definitely different,” said Ellison, who sat out last season after transferring from St. John’s. “Obviously, we have a better team this year so the game was hyped up. We have a lot of new guys, and the guys we had last year never played in front of that kind of crowd.”
The sellout crowd of 12,508 was just as Cameron Johnson imagined it would be playing at the Pete, except that he was wearing Carolina blue. Johnson spent three years at Pitt and got his degree but transferred after the Panthers slipped so fast from an NCAA tourney team under Jamie Dixon to an ACC bottom feeder under Kevin Stallings.
The 6-foot-9 guard, a Moon native and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart graduate, delivered daggers by making his first three shots. That included the 3-pointer that broke the tie and started Carolina’s run.
Johnson made 6 of 12 shots from the field, including three treys, and finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists without a turnover. Pitt had no assists and eight turnovers in the first half, when it shot 20.7 percent (19 of 62) from the field and 2 of 19 on 3s.
“I thought the turnout was great. It was good to see the arena lively,” Johnson said. “Coach Capel is doing a really good job here, and they’re headed in the right direction. The energy in the crowd was great. I do remember it being that way. When it gets loud and it gets rockin,’ it can really mess with opponents.”
Capel is counting on as much and started his postgame interview by commenting that he’s “incredibly grateful” for the crowd and “very appreciative” of the energy, especially from the Oakland Zoo.
Truth is, Carolina fans made up a portion of the crowd, and the student section’s battery drained as soon as the Panthers fell behind by double digits. Where point guard Xavier Johnson scored eight of his 14 points in the first half, fellow freshman Trey McGowens admitted to pregame jitters and scored 10 of his team-high 17 in the second half.
Pitt’s problems are obvious: They are “very, very, very young,” as Carolina coach Roy Williams noted, and have little depth. Even so, Williams said he didn’t sleep well thinking about Johnson attacking the rim and added that he was worn out just by watching tape of the Panthers’ play at West Virginia.
“Jeff’s club is going to be fine,” Williams said. “I love their style of play. They push it up. The first thing we put on the board is sprint both ways. You’ve got to sprint to offense, but you’ve got to sprint back to defense, too. … They’re continually putting pressure on you by driving the ball to the basket. Those two freshman guards have a great ability to get the ball in front of the rim and get fouled.”
That was a bright spot for Pitt: It shot 32 free throws. The downside is that it made only 20 (62.5 percent), and its missed shots became defensive lapses. The Panthers (10-4) already have exceeded their win total from last season, but this was a reminder that they are no longer in nonconference play and that building a program with freshmen will require both patience and a better performance with three of the next five games against ranked teams.
“We have to go a long way. That’s pretty obvious,” Capel said, casually mentioning that Pitt needs more talent. “We have to continue to get better. That’s the thing we talked about from Day 1 here: trying to get better each day and to listen to the voices and things going on in our locker room and what we have to do and not listen to the noise around it. I’m pretty sure there will be stuff written, same old … That’s what people can think, but it’s not the same Pitt.
“We’re going to continue to fight. We’re going to continue to get better.”
That’s something that can ease Capel’s fears and concerns: Pitt’s ACC debut was a dud, but after bottoming out last season with a winless conference record, the Panthers have nowhere to go but up.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.