Column | After four straight losses, Pitt needs to win a game that it shouldn’t


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt freshman forward Nate Santos (5) takes a shot during the Pitt vs. Colgate men’s basketball game on Dec. 9.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

Jeff Capel-led Pitt teams are notoriously bad in February. They are 3-22 in games played during the second month of the year. The most recent were back-to-back losses at the hands of Virginia Tech, which led by more than 20 points during each contest.

These struggles highlight a larger concern about Capel’s teams — they have failed to improve. Whether because of fatigue, chemistry issues, better scouting from opponents or any number of other reasons, they consistently flop down the stretch.

For a few weeks in January, it looked like Capel had begun to buck that narrative. His team picked up a few wins in conference play and, even when they weren’t winning, played their opponents close. It was largely thanks to a game plan centered around dragging opponents down into the muck and capitalizing on their errors — “winning ugly,” as the team and Capel call it. Not only did the Panthers look competitive, but it wasn’t unthinkable that they could climb to the middle of a largely unimpressive ACC.

But four straight losses and a 2-7 stretch over their last nine contests have put the Panthers back on their heels as they dropped back to a familiar position at the bottom of conference standings. Things will only get more difficult as Pitt prepares to face Florida State on the road Wednesday night. The Seminoles provide an unfavorable matchup and the Panthers’ struggles on the road only make their task taller. It’ll take a disciplined defensive effort to pull out an upset win.

Pitt has struggled to shoot the ball for most of the year, but survived on the strength of its defense. The Panthers played slowly and deliberately, hoping to minimize possessions and mistakes. This is an effective strategy if — and only if — they can play with a lead or even match their opponents.

Capel said after Saturday’s loss at Virginia Tech that his team needs to apply more attention to detail and intensity throughout the entirety of the game. He didn’t get that from his players on Monday.

“Our slow start really hurt us again,” Capel said. “We got off to a good start in the first five minutes — we played hard, I thought we defended, we moved — and then after that … we weren’t able to score in the first half. … It was disappointing for us.”

In order to keep from falling behind early, Pitt will need to rediscover the defensive intensity that kept them afloat through so much of this season.

Over its last 12 contests, Pitt has posted a single-game defensive rating above the Division I average just twice. What’s more, the Panthers’ opponent points per possession rate has trended steadily in the wrong direction ever since they achieved a season-best mark while beating Louisville on Jan. 15.

One of the anchors of that defensive unit is graduate transfer Mouhamadou Gueye, a former All-America East defender at Stony Brook.

It was clear that, when Gueye picked up his fourth foul on Monday night and was recalled to the bench, Pitt struggled to handle the size of the Hokie front court, particularly redshirt senior Keve Aluma and graduate student Justyn Mutts. The Seminoles — whose starting lineup boasts an average height of 6-foot-8 — will provide a similar challenge.

Capel and Pitt need Gueye on the floor if they are to be successful and doing so will take a team effort, according to sophomore guard Femi Odukale.

“Lately, he’s been getting in foul trouble and we tried to prevent that from happening,” Odukale said after losing to the Hokies on Saturday. “Most of his fouls come from the post or someone giving up a backdoor cut, just little stuff like that where Mo’s got to help us. So we, as a team, got to play better on the defensive end.”

Gueye’s offense has proved invaluable too. The rangy, 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 10.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and is making 3-pointers at a 39% clip against ACC opponents this year.

Gueye has been outstanding for the Panthers — particularly as of late — but he also ranks second on the team in fouls per game, a fact which has hindered overall team success. 

The Panthers are 2-6 when he collects four or more fouls and 6-9 when he records three or fewer. They’re also 3-7 when he plays less than 30 minutes and 5-6 when he plays 34 or more. Among Pitt players with 500 or more minutes logged this season, Gueye is the only one with a defensive rating lower than 103 and an offensive rating above 100.

Pitt’s offense has been poor all season. Don’t expect this game against Florida State — which ranks 64th nationally in defensive efficiency — to go any differently. Pitt certainly doesn’t. Capel’s focus during this four-game losing streak has been improving the defense, something that can mask his team’s obvious lack of scoring talent.

The Panthers need a win, and need one badly. If they want to salvage something from this messy season, they can ill afford to waste any of their remaining seven regular season games, beginning with this one against the Seminoles.

Pitt and Florida State will tip off at 9 p.m. on Wednesday night in Tallahassee, Florida. ACC Network will carry the broadcast.