Column | Capel, Pitt need to win at UNC to instill belief in hints of progress


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Senior guard Nike Sibande dribbles the ball down the court during the Pitt vs. Gannon men’s basketball exhibition game on Nov. 1, 2021.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

You would have to go back more than 390 days to find the last time Pitt men’s basketball recorded back-to-back wins in ACC play. You would have to go back eight years to find Pitt’s last win over NC State.

The Panthers ended both droughts with their 71-69 win over the Wolfpack on Saturday, but in order to show true signs of growth, Pitt needs a win on Wednesday in Chapel Hill.

Pitt beat the Tar Heels on the road only one time since joining the ACC — a 73-65 win during the 2019-20 season. Both teams look vastly different since that night. Every Panther starter from the victory has moved on from Pitt, and first-year North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis is still trying to inject his own identity into a program that is synonymous with predecessor Roy Williams.

North Carolina is likely to be a tournament team, but it doesn’t have any wins on its resumé that jump off the page. The Tar Heels beat the teams they should beat and struggle against teams that are even or better than them, talent-wise. All four of Carolina’s ACC losses come to teams currently sitting in the top five in the conference standings.

That spells trouble for Pitt, which enters Wednesday’s matchup in the bottom five of the conference. The common theme recently for the Panthers is they fall so far behind in the first half of games that the only hope of a comeback is by saying a prayer at halftime. Across their past seven games, they were outscored 240-156 in the first half — there’s no shovel big enough in the world to dig out of that hole.

The key for Pitt is to get out to a fast start, quiet the crowd and dictate the pace of the game. North Carolina is No. 26 in the nation in points per game, putting up 90 or more three times in its last five outings. The Panthers sit on the opposite end of the scale, ranking No. 345 in points per game. Pitt needs to start out fast in this one, or it could get ugly quick.

Pitt has done a much better job defensively in its last two games and will need that to carry over in this game. North Carolina shoots a scorching 39% from three — good for No. 12 in 3-point shooting percentage. Pitt needs to stay connected and close out well or UNC’s trio of sharpshooters — sophomore guards RJ Davis and Caleb Love, plus senior forward Brady Manek — will make it pay.

The message from Pitt head coach Jeff Capel to his team hasn’t changed — to win, the game needs to be ugly. That is the recipe for success in every game they play, but especially against an offense as explosive as North Carolina. When the Panthers hold opponents to under 40% shooting, they are 9-2. On the flip side, when opponents shoot above 40% against Pitt, they are 1-14. Pitt simply doesn’t have the scoring punch to go bucket for bucket with UNC. Its success hinges on defense.

Carolina is led in scoring by junior forward Armando Bacot, who is averaging 16.6 points per game. The old-fashioned interior battle between him and Pitt sophomore forward John Hugley will be one to watch, and it’ll be interesting to see how UNC approaches it. Bacot is physical enough to guard Hugley individually, but it remains to be seen whether the Panthers will send double teams at him to force others to score the ball.

One thing working in the Panthers’ favor is hot shooting from junior guard Ithiel Horton. Horton is averaging 21 points per game over his last two contests, and is shooting a remarkable 44% from deep. Horton can get hot quickly — once he sees the ball go through the net a few times, he’s likely going to be in for a big night. This could create one-on-one opportunities for Hugley in the post, as well as easier scoring opportunities for a struggling Panther offense.

If not, Hugley said during a Monday press conference that he is becoming much more comfortable when doubled.

“The double-team is starting to feel like single coverage,” Hugley said.

Capel has worked tirelessly to instill a culture of being together and fighting for each other since his arrival. But it is now year four with Capel at the helm and fans want to see results.

This North Carolina team isn’t elite like many of the past, but it is still North Carolina. It means something to win in the Dean Smith Center, and it means something to beat a college basketball blueblood. The Panthers have won just two games away from the Petersen Events Center this season, and winning a game of this magnitude would be huge for a team that is still learning how to win on the road.

Capel’s message to fans is beginning to sound like typical coach-speak — hearing him talk about what is required to win used to provide hope, but now sounds stale. A win on Wednesday would start to show the results needed to back up those words. Until then, they seem empty.

The current state of the program isn’t entirely Capel’s fault —he’s been extremely unlucky across his four years as head coach at Pitt. But at some point, excuses need to stop and you need to produce. This is one of those games.

Tipoff between the Panthers and Tar Heels is slated for 8 p.m. on Wednesday night. ACC Network will carry the broadcast.