Pitt needs defense to protect the Pete vs. FSU

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Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Trey McGowens (2) was the highest-rated player from head coach Jeff Capel's first recruiting class.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

When the Panthers and Seminoles last took the floor of the Petersen Events Center in January, head coach Jeff Capel’s “Zoo Era” of Pitt basketball was still in its infancy, but the hype had already grown to larger-than-life heights.

The Panthers upset then No. 11 Florida State with 30 points from then first-year guard Trey McGowens. The Panthers used their size disadvantage as a weapon, baiting the long, athletic Seminoles into 31 fouls, which turned into 46 free throw attempts. Pitt made 38 of those 46 attempts, en route to a 75-62 win.

Victory over Florida State brought Pitt’s record in the ACC to an even 2-2 and had fans salivating at Pitt basketball’s return to the dominance of eras past, but that hype was premature. The Panthers wouldn’t win another game until March and limped to a 14-19 record, capped by a loss in the second round of the ACC Tournament.

McGowens is back, along with classmate Xavier Johnson, who also burned Florida State for 18 points while going a perfect 10-10 from the free throw line. But other than that, the Pitt team that will welcome the team from Tallahassee on Wednesday will be unrecognizable from last year’s squad — at least according to Johnson during a press conference last week.

“It’s a whole different Pitt team, so they can’t expect … to just come in and get a W,” Johnson said. “Everything. Intensity, scoring the ball, playing defense full court. I can’t describe it to you, but we’re gonna be ready.”

That’s good news for the Panthers, because they’ll need to be ready. While the Seminoles lost key pieces of last year’s ACC Tournament runner-up and NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 team, they reloaded with the kind of height and athleticism that head coach Leonard Hamilton loves in his players.

Although 7-foot-4 center Christ Koumaje was lost to graduation, Hamilton wasted no time in filling his particularly large shoes. Enter 7-foot-1 first-year center Balsa Koprivica, a native of Serbia, and 7-foot Polish graduate transfer Dominik Olejniczak, the latest in a pattern of towering Florida State big men.

Koprivica and Olejniczak will both see their fair share of floor on Wednesday night and will keep graduate transfer Eric Hamilton and junior Terrell Brown busy on both ends of the floor. Pitt cannot match the vertical advantages that the Seminoles have, but will have a subtle edge down low.

Hamilton is listed at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, while Brown stands slightly taller and thinner at 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds after adding a bit of muscle during the offseason. Florida State’s twin 7-footers both check in at 260 pounds each, meaning that Hamilton and Brown have the weight to keep Koprivica and Olejniczak out of the paint.

It will be essential for Hamilton and Brown to use their muscle to gain favorable position in the post to play defense and box out, so that Florida State’s height advantage is neutralized on the boards, and the centers are forced to score from the outside.

It’s a tall order that’s based off of their results from a secret scrimmage against Maryland last month. Capel said during a press conference last week that he is still wary of their ability to hold their own on the boards.

“One of the major areas [for improvement] was rebounding,” Capel said. “As of right now it’s gonna be gang rebounding … Our guards have to get down there, we have to block out, we have to do the dirty work.”

But with the addition of Hamilton and growth of Brown, the Panthers won’t be as physically overmatched as they were at points last year, meaning that Pitt’s guards will have ample opportunity to grab rebounds and outflank the Seminoles for transition layups.

And even though Florida State’s height is immediately obvious, its skill on the perimeter will also challenge the Panthers on the defensive end. Senior point guard Trent Forrest commands the Seminoles on offense. He is tied for ninth in Florida State program history in assists and has increased his scoring average in each of his three years as a Seminole.

In his final season, Forrest figures to improve on both of those already impressive figures. That means McGowens, Pitt’s best guard defender, will need to blanket Forrest and force him to give the ball up and rely on less proven perimeter players.

Similarly, sophomore forward Au’Diese Toney will be tasked with containing first-year phenom and future first-round NBA Draft pick, Patrick Williams. Williams was rated as a five-star recruit and has lived up to the billing so far.

His coaches in Tallahassee are raving about Williams’ maturity and talent, which manifests itself particularly on the offensive end. He’s a smart cutter and strong shooter, who will fit perfectly with Forrest’s outstanding passing and ball-handling ability. Williams also has a nose for offensive rebounds and doesn’t hesitate when defenders give him an opening.

Toney will have to be aware, physical and judicious with his fouls. There are few players on Pitt’s roster who can match up physically with the 6-foot-9 Williams. Toney is the right combination of height, athleticism and defensive IQ to rise to the occasion.

And like Toney, Pitt will have to rise to the occasion as a team. There are plenty of distractions that naturally come with a season opener, but adding the stakes of a conference game and weight of new expectations will create a more difficult path to victory for Pitt. But Capel is confident that their scrimmage with Maryand and summer trip to Italy will serve them well in an unusual opener.

“Normally the first game is not against an opponent with that kind of size, athleticism, sometimes talent,” Capel said. “That’s why we scheduled the Italy trip. All of it was in preparation for having two conference games before Christmas.”

Last season, Pitt’s coaching staff instilled the image of each game as a “10-round fight” into their team’s DNA. Essentially, no game will be easy and no game is over until the clock hits zero. Now, Capel has carried that mantra into the new year.

“None of it’s easy,” Capel said. “Even if you have a whole team returning that was a Final Four team last year, it’s not easy. But I like the direction that we’re headed in and I like this group. I like the spirit they have, I like how they’ve worked, I like how they try to attack and get better each day. And hopefully we can continue to do that … We’ve gotta stick together and keep fighting.”

Wednesday night. 8 p.m. Florida State enters the Petersen Events Center for round one.

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