Solving Syracuse’s vaunted zone next lesson for Pitt
Jeff Capel has taught his team plenty of basketball this season.
Pitt’s players know how to drive to the hoop, draw fouls and rebound against bigger opponents.
But there’s more to building a winning program than talented athletes trying to execute Xs and Os.
Capel is hoping to build a culture of discipline and doing the right thing, and that’s the kind of team he wants to take into the Carrier Dome on Saturday to play Syracuse.
After the loss last week at N.C. State, Capel boarded the team bus and wasn’t pleased with the deportment of some of his players, and he let them know it. Those on the bus said they never saw a bus get so quiet, so quickly.
On his radio show Thursday night on KDKA-FM, Capel talked about the incident and how it might have contributed in a small way to the culture he’s trying to build at Pitt.
“I’m not going to even say a change of culture,” he said “The past couple years I don’t think there was one (at Pitt).
“It wasn’t like when Jamie (Dixon) was here. There certainly was a big-time culture when he was here, a culture of toughness, togetherness. Those are the Pitt teams I remember watching from afar and really, really admired.”
Capel’s team is acquiring some of that toughness, especially on defense, where it has drawn 40 offensive fouls in 17 games. Over the previous two seasons and 65 games, Pitt drew 33.
Capel’s rebuilding efforts have led the Panthers to a 12-5 record, 2-2 in the ACC. It’s a league where almost any team can beat another, and, perhaps, that can include Pitt as the season progresses.
For example, Pitt lost to North Carolina, 85-60, but then defeated Louisville, 89-86, in overtime. Louisville, in turn, beat North Carolina, 83-62, in Chapel Hill.
Syracuse took an 11-5 record into Cameron Indoor Stadium to play No. 1 Duke. The Orange won, 95-91, in overtime only two days after losing at home, 73-59, to Georgia Tech.
Those scores indicate almost anything can happen in the ACC, and Pitt can thrust itself into the middle of such craziness by winning at Syracuse.
Pitt used to win regularly against the Orange — five in a row under Dixon and six of seven when you count an 80-75 victory by a Kevin Stallings-led Pitt team in 2017.
With 14 ACC games remaining and backup point guard Sidy N’Dir recovered from his leg injury, Capel has his full complement of nine players available.
Freshmen Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney have led the team for most of the season. Johnson and McGowens are first and second in scoring (17.1 and 14.4) and Toney, at 6-foot-6, 210 pounds, leads in rebounding (6.1).
But Capel suddenly is getting contributions from some holdovers from last season.
Sophomore center Terrell Brown has blocked at least two shots in seven of the past eight games. His streak of a blocked shot in 15 consecutive games in the sixth-longest in Pitt history. He’s also shooting nearly 50 percent in four ACC games (13 of 28) while averaging more than seven points. Pitt outrebounded a bigger Florida State team, 26-20, in the second half Monday night.
Another example of Pitt’s bench getting deeper: Sophomore guard Khameron Davis, a strong defender, didn’t miss a shot (four attempts) in the Louisville and N.C. State games.
Brown said Capel spent this week showing his players where the open areas could develop in Syracuse’ 2-3 zone.
“He told me I’m going to have a lot of openings,” Brown said. “I’m going to have my shot. Guards are going to get in the lanes and create shots for others.”
When the program was in turmoil after Stallings was fired, Brown said he and Davis each made separate decisions to stay while others were transferring. He said it made them closer friends.
“We knew our core was good,” Brown said. “We were convinced that if the right guys were staying, we would be able to do something.”
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 .