Unproven Panthers show drastic improvement

By Andrew Kelly, Staff Writer

The Pitt men’s basketball team is off to a hot start in 2018, beating each of its first two opponents — Youngstown State and Virginia Military Institute — by a combined score of 163-108.

You might point out the fact YSU and VMI are far from top competition. You are correct, as both play in far less competitive conferences, albeit in the same Division I level. But it’s a notable accomplishment when you compare this Pitt team to where last year’s team was at this point. The 2017 Panthers started out 0-2, losing to the similarly low-level squads of Navy and Montana.

And it’s not just encouraging that the Panthers are winning, but rather how they are winning. With new head coach Jeff Capel at the helm, Pitt is playing a fast and aggressive brand of basketball, forcing turnovers and scoring points in transition. Even when the Panthers are slowed down and forced to play in the half court, the offense is filled with motion and energy that goes a long way toward getting the team good looks at the hoop.

Along with coach Capel, there are plenty of new faces on the men’s roster. First-year guard Xavier Johnson is the standout so far, emerging as the team’s focal point. He provides the Panthers with an element they dearly lacked last season — quickness. They say speed kills, and Johnson embodies that mantra. Because of his relentless on-ball pressure and ability to explode to the hoop on offense, Johnson leads the team in several categories, including points (30), steals (4) and assists (16) — no other player has more than five assists.

Fellow first-year players Trey McGowens and Au-Diese Toney have shown early returns for Capel’s recruitment as well. Although McGowens has struggled with ball control, leading the team with nine turnovers, he’s shown glimpses of what made him a highly touted four-star recruit. He led the Panthers with 17 points against YSU, and has already provided several highlight-reel dunks throughout the young season.

And Toney — another four-star recruit — has quietly carved out a meaningful niche on the team. Recruited as a guard, the 6-foot-6 Toney has instead played more of a forward role for the undersized Panthers. He leads the team with 17 rebounds and is the second-leading scorer after Johnson, with 26 points through the first two games.

Among the most crucial returning players for Pitt is senior forward Jared Wilson-Frame. He was thrust into a leading role last season after senior leader Ryan Luther went down with an injury, and although he finished as the team’s leading scorer with 13 points per game, it wasn’t pretty to watch. Like the rest of the team, many of Wilson-Frame’s shots came from contested heaves near the end of the shot clock, leading to an inefficient 37.5 field goal percentage.

Wilson-Frame’s production so far shows the difference between last year’s team and this year’s. He tied for the team lead with 14 points in an exhibition against Pitt-Johnstown, but was forced to sit out the season opener due to internal undisclosed disciplinary actions. Wilson-Frame picked up right where he left off against VMI, leading the team with 20 points off the bench thanks to a hyper-efficient five of nine shooting performance from three-point range. Although the sample size is small, Wilson-Frame is poised to provide the Panthers with a legitimate sharpshooting threat, and he will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new movement-oriented offense.

As a team, the Panthers shot 32.6 percent from three through their first two games in 2017. This season, Pitt is shooting far better from long distance — 41.7 percent from three. This increase in efficiency comes partly from an increase in talent, but it comes more from Pitt having an offensive system which prioritizes penetration and ball movement, making the extra pass to find the open man for a good look at the basket.

Pitt’s defense is also much improved, with the team making a visible effort to apply heavy on-ball pressure. The Panthers have only forced two more turnovers at this point than last season — 33 compared to 31 — but the way they’ve taken advantage of those turnovers differs drastically. Pitt has scored a whopping 51 of its 163 points — or 31.3 percent — off turnovers so far. Through two games last year, Pitt scored 23 of its 140 points — just 16.4 percent — off turnovers.

The Panthers will face an increase in competition starting Monday, when they take on a Troy team with talent far exceeding that of Youngstown State and VMI. While it’s certainly still a game Pitt should win, it will be a better test for the young team than they’ve faced so far this season.  

Of course, another issue that potentially looms for the Panthers is their tendency to play small, typically starting four guards and a center. This type of lineup has been effective so far because Pitt has simply been more athletic than its opponents. But eventually the Panthers will play teams equal and superior in talent and height, and it remains to be seen how much a lack of size will hurt the team down the stretch.

So despite the Panthers’ early-season success, fans shouldn’t get ahead of themselves with massive expectations. Pitt plays in the ACC after all, typically considered the best conference in college basketball. With teams like Virginia, North Carolina and Clemson all looking to have strong seasons — and Duke being the best team in the country — the in-conference schedule will certainly be an uphill battle for the Panthers. Luckily, that part of the schedule is still quite a ways away, and this young team will have time to grow and progress before facing such strong competition.

Pitt takes on Troy at home Monday night in what will easily be its toughest test of the young season. The Trojans are coming off a close loss to St. Louis, a perennial NCAA Tournament team, in which they blew a late lead. The Panthers will use this game as a litmus test for their apparently revitalized program — and as a springboard to keep proving doubters wrong as they enter the tougher portion of the schedule.