Pitt basketball faces long odds at FSU

By Sam Krimins, For The Pitt News

Pitt men’s basketball hasn’t lost three straight games all season, but it looks like that could change Tuesday night at No. 8 Florida State (21-4 overall, 11-3 ACC). 

The Panthers are in the midst of a dreadful stretch, coming off consecutive double-digit losses to middling Clemson and Virginia Tech squads. The Seminoles, meanwhile, are undefeated at home this season. ESPN.com gives Pitt a measly 8.4% chance to win.

Despite this, there’s still reason to believe the Panthers (15-11 overall, 6-9 ACC) can pull off the upset — namely, because they’ve done it before. Head coach Jeff Capel’s crew kicked off this season by beating the Seminoles 63-61 at the Petersen Events Center. They’ll seek their second win against a very motivated Florida State team.

Florida State sophomore guard Devin Vassell heads Pitt’s defensive focus. His explosion onto the national stage has helped catapult the Seminoles into a top-10 college basketball team. The young guard has increased his points per game from 4.5 last season to 13.4 this season thanks to an ACC fifth-best 42% 3-point field-goal percentage. The Panthers will need to run Vassell off the line in order to keep the contest close. 

Pitt’s own sophomore guard Xavier Johnson burst onto the scene last season as a rookie but has largely underperformed in his second-year campaign. Facing Vassell and senior guard Trent Forrest presents a challenging test for Johnson, whose defense must be on point to slow down Florida State’s dynamic scorers.

On offense, Pitt needs production from sophomore guard Trey McGowens. The Panthers’ success often depends on whether his shot is falling or not, and lately it’s been the latter. McGowens has scored just 15 points combined in Pitt’s last two games on a woeful 4-17 shooting. Look for him to be aggressive early as he attempts to get back in rhythm. 

The duo of Johnson and McGowens must step up against an outstanding Florida State foe that has been dominant since its opening loss to the Panthers. Like most games, the turnover battle will be paramount in Pitt’s success. The Panthers’ aggressive guard play is often a hindrance as much as it is a strength. The tale of games seems to be either electric scoring or humiliatingly sloppy play.

Florida State’s defense, which leads the ACC in steals and ranks second in blocks, allows its offense to get high-percentage looks in transition. Johnson and McGowens need to take care of the ball and consistently make the right play. If they don’t, Pitt will get flattened by a well-balanced opponent that excels on both sides of the ball.  

Not to be underestimated is Pitt’s defense, which currently ranks 40th out of 350 teams nationally in opponent scoring, allowing 63.9 points per game. McGowens’ quick hands (1.77 steals per game) and sophomore forward Au’Diese Toney’s lockdown ability lead the way for the Panthers. The pesky perimeter defense of these two can irritate the shooters of Florida State. 

Running the Seminoles’ shooters off the 3-point line will be crucial for Pitt to slow down its offense. Most important of those shooters are Vassell and Forrest, who can be lethal if not contained. Just ask Virginia — Vassell shot 7-7 from distance in a win over the defending champs as they let the star guard let loose from deep.

The biggest obstacle for Pitt may be the fact that Florida State dominates in its own stadium. Currently undefeated at home, the Seminoles have a significant advantage when playing in front of their rowdy Tallahassee crowd. If Pitt falls to a large deficit early, Florida State will simply ride out the momentum of its home fans to victory. 

It’s a nightmarish test for a Pitt team already stuck in such a rut. But, as is the Panthers’ nature, there always remains the possibility that McGowens has one of his patented high-scoring performances, while the defense smothers Florida State’s playmakers. The two teams will tip off at 8 p.m.