Trietley: A look at what’s wrong with Pitt hoops

By Greg Trietley

Minutes before tipoff on Monday and 10 rows from the top of the Carrier Dome, a middle-aged man… Minutes before tipoff on Monday and 10 rows from the top of the Carrier Dome, a middle-aged man in bright orange leaned over and asked me a simple question: “So what’s wrong with Pitt?”

I froze. Do I tell him about the injuries to point guard Travon Woodall? About how much everybody misses center Gary McGhee? Is he going to ask about the rebel Khem Birch?

With one six-hour trip behind me and another six-hour trip to come after the game, coherent thought wasn’t fair to expect. My immediate answer was a loud, monotone, “Uhh,” followed by, “Everything.”

Everything is wrong, I thought.

That proved to be a little overdramatic. The Pitt men’s basketball team — winless in the Big East — did enough right that night to hold the No. 1 team in the nation to its worst offensive performance in six weeks. The Panthers lost to the undefeated Syracuse Orange by eight, 71-63.

The middle-aged man, a loyal, knowledgeable, pleasant fan (does Syracuse have any other kind?), saw he had a rare seat next to someone wearing something other than an orange hoodie and took the opportunity to learn about Pitt.

“Tell me about this Wright kid. What’s going on with him?”

When Cameron Wright entered Monday’s game off the bench, a grumble or two rose up from section 315. The best way to describe his game this season is “non-factor.” Turnovers have dogged Pitt’s backcourt, and Wright has been the most villainized offender.

“Huh,” the man said. “The guide has him hitting more of his shots than Gibbs. Thought he might have been more promising.”

He knows his stats. When Wright shoots, his shooting percentage, 44.2 percent, is better than John Johnson’s 43.8 percent, Ashton Gibbs’ 38.3 percent, J.J. Moore’s 38 percent and Lamar Patterson’s 38 percent.

“Wow. Has Gibbs really been that bad this year?” the man said.

Ashton Gibbs hasn’t changed as a player since last year, but the team around him has. With no offensive threat to complement Gibbs, defenses can swarm him — or whatever bee metaphor you want to use. With power forward Nasir Robinson struggling to finish baskets and Woodall in a checkered button-up, the freshman Johnson of all people is the de facto No. 2 scorer — except he’s also a catch-and-shoot player.

When Johnson kept Pitt close to the Orange in the second half with a deep 3-pointer as the shot clock expired, the 24,826 people in the Carrier Dome went silent — except for my Syracuse friend.

“Where’d this kid come from?” he said.

“Yeah, he does that a lot. Good defensively, too. He was a little underplayed as a recruit I think,” I told him.

Johnson’s range has been a bright spot this season. The sans-Birch recruiting class — Malcolm Gilbert, John Johnson and Durand Johnson — earns high marks. The previous trio of Wright, Moore and Isaiah Epps … not so much.

Pitt closed the gap to four points, 53-49, with 8:39 left in the half, but Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters hit back-to-back 3-pointers to extend the lead to 10 and end the Panthers’ charge.

Joseph’s was an open look, a well-drawn play by Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim out of a media timeout. Johnson had a hand in Waiters’ face, but the 6-foot-4 Waiters rose and hit regardless.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” the man said.

It’s too common a scene. A 6-foot-4 shooter rising over one of Pitt’s diminutive guards, be it Johnson (listed at 6-foot-1), Gibbs (6-foot-2) or Woodall (5-foot-11). The Panthers are worst in the conference in 3-point shooting defense — opponents hit 34.8 percent of their shots from behind the arc. Shooters just elevate over Pitt.

It happens down low, too. How many alley-oops did the Orange have Monday? You don’t see “size disadvantage” in a sentence about Pitt too often, but here it is.

With less than a minute to play, my newfound Syracuse friend and I both reached under the bleachers to grab our coats. “Good game on both ends tonight. You could’ve had it if you hit a couple more of those free throws,” he said.

Height, size, injuries, transfers … them’s the breaks. But free throws are fundamental, and poor shooting from the line is endemic at Pitt this year.

It’s like that scene from “Animal House” when Dean Wormer reads off the grade-point averages. Dante Taylor: 57.1 percent. Talib Zanna: 55.9. Robinson: 52.3. Epps: 0.0.

He’s 0-for-3.

Pitt has two options: finish under the rim despite contact or make them pay at the line. If the Panthers can’t do either, a kind-hearted Syracuse fan in section 315 wants to know, “When are they finally going to win?”