Clemson loss shows Pitt not yet ready for Tournament

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Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Head coach Jeff Capel described Pitt’s performance against Clemson on Wednesday as “bad across the board.”

By Alex Lehmbeck, Senior Staff Writer

After completing a brutal string of games against the ACC’s best programs, Pitt recently started a run of games against middle-of-the-pack opponents. This stretch presented an opportunity for the Panthers to emerge as an NCAA tournament bubble squad, or sink back into a hopeful NIT bid.

They have sunk. While the program certainly has made great strides with head coach Jeff Capel, less than two years removed from a Kevin Stallings-led 0-18 ACC record, Wednesday’s 20-point home loss to a struggling Clemson team all but confirmed that Pitt won’t be part of the selection committee’s discussions come March.

From a team that has exhibited soaring highs and devastating lows, Wednesday’s performance was the worst showing of the whole season, falling well short on both ends of the floor.

On defense, Pitt got absolutely abused by Clemson’s shooters, giving up a season-worst 13 3-pointers. The Tigers’ guards swiftly navigated through Pitt’s zone and man-to-man defenses to move the ball around for open looks. Clemson’s 64.8 effective field-goal percentage was the highest of any Pitt opponent this season, and the Tigers’ best of the year.

With an inconsistent and often stagnant offense, Pitt cannot afford defensive meltdowns like these. Capel’s teams have shown they won’t come away with wins from high-scoring shootouts, but by stifling opposing offenses. Under Capel, the Panthers are 7-0 in the ACC when they hold opponents to under 0.97 points per possession. When they fail to do so, their record drops to 2-25.

On the other end, offensive lapses kept the Panthers from pulling off a comeback after their slow start. Not only did Clemson have its best effective field goal percentage of the year, but Pitt put forth its second worst of the season.

“We were just bad across the board,” Capel said after the loss. “Energy, communication, execution on both sides. It was a really disappointing performance by us. Gotta learn from it and move on to the next play and get ready for the next one.”

The aspect that separates this performance from some of Pitt’s other offensive or defensive struggles is the competition it faced. The only teams Pitt scored less points per possession against this year were Louisville and West Virginia. The only team Pitt gave up more points per possession against is Duke.

These are all nationally ranked squads at No. 5, 14 and 7, respectively. They feature likely first-round picks in the 2020 NBA draft like Vernon Carey Jr. and Jordan Nwora. It makes sense that a young, rising Pitt squad would struggle against this elite competition.

Clemson (12-12 overall, 6-8 ACC) isn’t a team that should put up jaw-dropping numbers in the Petersen Events Center. Before the Tigers torched the Panthers from deep, they were one of the ACC’s worst 3-point shooting teams at 30.8%. They had lost three straight games when they arrived in Pittsburgh.

Clemson simply took advantage of Pitt’s biggest weakness on the defensive end — defending the deep ball. Despite only giving up 63.8 points per game, the Panthers rank 13th out of 15 ACC teams in opposing 3-point field-goal percentage.

If teams want to beat Pitt, they just need to hit their open shots. In Pitt’s six conference wins this season, its opponents made 5.7 threes per game on 28.0% shooting. In the Panthers’ eight losses, they’ve given up 9.4 threes per game on 38.6% shooting.

Unless it puts together a miraculous tournament run to win the ACC title, Pitt would need to secure one of the 36 at-large bids to make the NCAA tournament. With six regular season games left, Pitt sits at 93rd in the country in ESPN’s BPI team rankings.

Instead of wishing for an NCAA Tournament Cinderella story, Pitt fans should save that for next year and simply hope for a strong finish to the 2019-20 season. If Pitt can win half of its last six regular-season games and add a win or two in the ACC Tournament, it has a good chance of making the National Invitational Tournament.

The NIT may not seem exciting, but it would still be a strong step in the right direction from a program that hit rock bottom in 2018. It would give the inexperienced Panthers further chances to develop in postseason play, and it may even give Pitt fans an opportunity to support their team at home a few more times this season.

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