Panthers basketball faces uphill battle at No. 1 Louisville

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Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

First-year guard Au’Diese Toney (5) celebrates during the first half of last year’s game against Louisville.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Pitt basketball is still going through some growing pains, and part of those growing pains means having a selective memory.

In the same way that Panthers head coach Jeff Capel wants his program to wipe clean the mountain of losses that have loomed since he first took over, he also wants to wipe clean the wins.

Last year the Panthers welcomed Louisville to Pittsburgh for their second conference matchup of the year and upset the Cardinals for their first ACC win in 689 days.

Now, as the Panthers prepare to travel south for their next ACC challenge with Louisville, Capel was asked in a press conference on Monday if there’s anything that his team can translate from last year’s win. He embraced the turning tides of the unpredictable sport he coaches and gave a casual denial.

“Not really,” Capel said. “We’re different, they’re different.”

It’s well-documented how wildly different the Panthers are from their 2018 selves. But the Cardinals have some more subtle differences, the most obvious one being their No. 1 ranking in this week’s AP Top 25 poll.

And why are the Cardinals so highly regarded? Experience. After floating around the top 20 for most of the season, they return five of their top six scorers, including the preseason ACC Player of the Year favorite, junior forward Jordan Nwora.

Nwora, the 2018-19 season’s Most Improved Player in the ACC, is averaging 21.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game through eight games this season. In addition to a career high in points, Nwora is shooting at rates that will shatter his previous highs. He has posted marks of 48.4% from the field and 43.3% from three — both would be career highs if sustained through an entire season.

Essentially, there is nowhere on the floor Nwora can’t score from. Even at the free-throw line, where Nwora has “scuffled” the most, he is converting more than 80% of his attempts.

To help spread the floor and open up space for the slashing Nwora, senior guard Ryan McMahon returns to man the perimeter on offense. He’s shooting a blistering 50% from 3-point range and his 2.8 3-point makes per game account for almost all of his scoring.

The Panthers are a strong defensive team, but haven’t faced a player like Nwora. He can move without the ball and score off the dribble. Capel will have to switch his defensive looks. When in zone, Pitt defenders will need to talk and play as a unit, closing out on Nwora and McMahon with speed and intelligence.

And when in man defense, first-year forward Justin Champagnie and sophomore forward Au’Diese Toney will be tasked with containing Nwora on an island so that their teammates can stay glued to Cardinal shooters, who are making 3-pointers at rate of 38%. If they allow Nwora easy access to the paint and close-range shots early on, the Cardinals offense will expand to all five players on the floor and the Panthers will be overwhelmed by the quantity of offensive threats.

Lousiville can certainly score with the best of them, but they don’t slouch on defense. The Cardinals boast top 10 rankings nationally in both effective field goal percentage and adjusted defensive efficiency.
The Panthers have struggled offensively all year, but are gelling as of late. Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson is passing and scoring with greater aptitude and efficiency after a turnover-laden start to his season. And as Johnson goes, so does the rest of the team. On Tuesday against Rutgers, Johnson turned in his strongest college performance to date, with 20 points, eight assists and three rebounds in the win.

Junior guard Ryan Murphy also broke out of a slump on Tuesday night with 15 points, five rebounds and four assists.

The Panthers will have to play their best game to knock off the No. 1 team in the country, limiting turnovers and defensive breakdowns. But despite this season’s setbacks, a quiet faith is growing, and sophomore guard Trey McGowens could sense it after downing the Scarlet Knights on Tuesday.

“We’re feeling more confident,” McGowens said. “We had some things rolling and did some good things, but coach [Capel’s] main thing was just to stay focused and don’t let what happened at the Nicholls State game happen again. We just had to lock in.”

Humbled by last month’s loss to Nicholls State, Pitt is determined and showing the increased maturity that was the talk of the team over the summer.

Pitt will have quite the opportunity to do that on Friday night, when they head to Louisville to face a hostile Cardinal crowd and the nation’s top-ranked team. Tip-off is slated for 9 p.m. on Friday and will be broadcasted on the ACC Network.

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