Column: Pitt basketball’s rebuild is ahead of schedule


Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

First-year guard Xavier Johnson (1), pictured here against FSU, led Pitt with 18 points in the loss.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

The Pitt men’s basketball team notched its second ACC win of the season Monday night, beating No. 11 Florida State 75-62 behind another strong performance from head coach Jeff Capel’s first-year recruits. The win was billed as an upset, but this Pitt team is looking more and more like a mainstay than an occasional barnstormer.

Monday’s victory gives the Panthers a 12-5 record overall record and 2-2 in the ACC, putting them ninth out of 15 teams within the conference — far ahead of the preseason media poll, which projected them to finish last for the second straight year. It’s still early, but there’s reason to believe that Pitt’s success is no fluke, and that the team should be competitive throughout the season.

For starters, Capel’s group has already shown that it can hang with almost any team. This first became evident when the young Panthers edged out St. Louis, a perennial tournament squad and preseason favorite to win the gritty A-10 conference, back in November. They followed that up by taking then-ranked No. 14 Iowa down to the wire, leading most of the game before a cold stretch from the floor saw them lose 69-68.

Pitt then beat Louisville for the first time since joining the ACC in 2013, also ending a 690-day ACC drought that dated back to 2017. It looked like the Panthers would steal a second straight win at No. 15 NC State, leading by four with six minutes left. The Wolfpack got red-hot from the field to take the lead and hit their ensuing free throws to deal Pitt an 86-80 loss. But the Panthers responded with the 13-point victory over Florida State, who on Saturday would have beat No. 1 Duke if not for a buzzer-beater from first-year Cam Reddish.

Already, one can draw a transitive property trail among ACC winners that implies any team — Pitt included — can beat any other team. For example, the Panthers lost 85-60 to No. 15 UNC. But UNC turned right around and lost by 21 points to Louisville, whom Pitt beat. And the Panthers handled FSU by 13 points, while it took the supposed best team in the nation Blue Devils a last-second miracle to beat the Seminoles by one bucket. Duke then lost to Syracuse — a team that, like Pitt, is 12-5 overall.

This sort of conference parity is beneficial to the rebuilding Panthers — just ask the football team, which won the ACC Coastal despite a mediocre 7-7 overall record because the division’s top teams had a down year and beat each other up. It’s looking like a similar thing could happen in ACC basketball, with only Virginia still unscathed through four games.

Competition aside, the Panthers have been a legitimate team in their own right. They say defense wins championships — and while Pitt doesn’t have its sights set on a championship any time soon, the team’s elite defense alone should be enough to ensure it doesn’t plummet back to the bottom tier of the ACC standings. Out of 353 Division I teams, Pitt ranks No. 14 in opponent shooting percentage, holding teams to just 38.5 percent from the field. The Panthers also force 16.7 turnovers per game, good for No. 19 in the nation.

These rankings reflect the fundamental identity of Capel’s Panthers — aggressiveness. They play an in-your-jersey style of defense, contesting nearly every shot and sprinting for every steal.

That high-energy aggression extends to the offensive end as well, where the Panthers shoot 26.8 free throws per game, good for No. 8 nationally. First-year guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens are the biggest reason for that, showing a fearlessness beyond their years to attack the hoop. Of the thousands of players in Division I college basketball, McGowens is No. 51 in free throws attempted per game with 6.65. Johnson is right behind him at No. 64 with 6.29 attempts per game.

Each has their own unique method of getting to the line — McGowens has an uncanny knack for probing the paint and initiating contact with defenders, while Johnson uses his raw speed and athleticism to blow by opponents, forcing them into a compromising defensive position. Both typically generate their points in the same fashion — either on the fast break or by using a high pick-and-roll in the halfcourt, similar to the play often seen in the NBA for MVP James Harden. In the clip below, you can see McGowens scoring most of his 33 points against Louisville in these ways.

It looked like Johnson was easily the Panthers’ best player early on, setting a program record for most consecutive double-digit games by a first-year player — a streak that is still going and currently sits at 17 games — and displaying a Russell Westbrook-esque athleticism that could make him an NBA prospect down the line. After all, there are only a handful of college players in the country who can consistently make plays like this:

Or this:

Johnson still leads Pitt in most major categories with 17.1 points per game, 29.9 minutes per game, a 3-point shooting percentage of 38.6 and 4.7 assists per game, which is No. 3 in the ACC.

But McGowens has recently come alongside Johnson to earn the title of co-best player. The four-star recruit earned ACC Freshman of the Week honors for the second time after leading Pitt to victory over Louisville, scoring a Pitt first-year-record 33 points in the process. He dished out a season-high seven assists at NC State, then led the Panthers with 30 points and four assists against FSU. In four games of ACC play, McGowens is averaging an incredible 21.75 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists. He also leads the entire conference with 2.41 steals per game.

Last season, you would be hard-pressed to see any Pitt player scoring 30 points or find the Panthers ranked in the top 20 of any particular statistic. But with a nationally relevant defense and a couple of star-caliber talents, Capel’s unit is proving that the 2017-18 season is a distant memory. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but the early dividends show that the Panthers are ahead of schedule. They’re a force right now, and should be expected to compete on even ground with the majority of ACC teams throughout the season.