In wake of loss to Duke, 3 questions hanging over Pitt basketball
Petersen Events Center is energized again, with two Pitt basketball crowds already topping 12,000.
How different is that? Average attendance at the Pete has fallen every season since 2014-15, finally hitting an all-time low of 4,117 last year.
Students seated in the Oakland Zoo sections take great glee in cheering for their team, even ridiculing opposing players and coaches. When the team is playing well, the whole place seems to shake.
But Pitt’s two best crowds of the season — 12,508 against North Carolina and 12,881 in Tuesday’s Duke game — watched the team lose by double-digit margins to two of the finest teams in the land.
That’s not unexpected when you consider how far the team fell last season, losing all 19 games against ACC competition. But it’s hardly acceptable in the Pitt locker room.
With their conference record standing at 2-4, here are three questions hanging over the Panthers:
Can Pitt handle adversity?
Senior Jared Wilson-Frame lamented his team’s inability to punch back when it got punched by Duke.
“We had a lot of mental mistakes,” he said. “We then had a lot of energy absence.”
Although Pitt continued to play hard when it fell behind in the first half, it didn’t make the necessary plays in the face of adversity.
Xavier Johnson, whose athletic ability rivals that of any freshman who has played at Pitt, had five turnovers and failed to score in double figures for the first time this season (eight).
Junior Malik Ellison turned it over three times, once when he appeared too eager to start a fast break and lost the handle on the ball.
Duke scored 17 points off Pitt’s 14 turnovers, which was just about the margin of defeat (79-64).
That’s not to suggest Pitt would have won by cutting its mistakes in half. But perhaps the Blue Devils wouldn’t have been able to sap the drama from the game with a 23-point lead early in the second half.
Can Pitt shoot well enough?
The Panthers are built on guards driving forcefully — sometimes recklessly — to the basket. When it faces a man-to-man defense, that plan often will work because Johnson and Trey McGowens are athletically superior to many opposing ACC guards.
But Syracuse and Duke were content to pack their zone defense in the paint and around the basket, taking away layup lanes. Only 10 days ago, McGowens and Johnson combined to hit 28 of 29 foul shots against Florida State. Versus Duke: 0 for 4.
The solution might be more and better outside shooting. Pitt attempted only 15 shots from beyond the 3-point line, hitting just three.
Duke’s percentage was nothing special (7 of 23). But that’s 21 points to nine for Pitt.
Also, it might save Pitt’s guards from falling on their backs so often. Ouch!
Is the ACC too difficult?
The ACC is a good proving ground.But it’s especially difficult for Pitt, with a short bench and three freshmen in the starting lineup.
A total of 11 of Pitt’s 18 conference games, including all six so far, are against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 or getting votes in the poll. Of the seven exceptions, five are away from the Pete, where Pitt is 2-4, including a victory against Duquesne at PPG Paints Arena (hardly foreign hardwood).
Next up is No. 23 Louisville on Saturday at KFC Yum! Center where the Cardinals will remember how they lost to Pitt in overtime Jan. 9. Since then, Louisville has recorded margins of victory of 21 (at North Carolina), 10 (vs. Boston College) and 28 (at Georgia Tech).
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .