The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) shoots over Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr., rear, in red, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New York on Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
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By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • May 23, 2024

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Get Pitt and Oakland news in your inbox, three times a week.

New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) shoots over Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr., rear, in red, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New York on Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
Column | Former Villanova fanatic watches “Nova Knicks” take down Sixers in NBA Playoffs
By Aidan Kasner, Sports Editor • May 23, 2024
Opinion | Do not arrest peaceful protesters
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • May 23, 2024

How Pitt men’s basketball turned its season around

Pitt+players+celebrate+after+a+play+during+Saturday+nights+game+against+Louisville+in+the+Petersen+Events+Center.+
Kaylee Uribe | Senior Staff Photographer
Pitt players celebrate after a play during Saturday night’s game against Louisville in the Petersen Events Center.

Pitt men’s basketball’s season looked like it was over in early January. Meaningful basketball in February seemed like a long shot, and a return to the postseason seemed like a dream. 

But something has clicked in the Panthers. The Panthers started 1-5 in the ACC but have won seven of their last eight and have entered their name in the NCAA tournament bubble conversation. Many factors have led to the Panthers’ turnaround, but it all starts with their head coach, Jeff Capel.

Capel’s lineup adjustments

Capel — for the second season in a row — has elevated a Panthers team riddled with question marks. Capel has proven himself as a worthy head coach in the ACC. 

But what makes Capel a competent head coach isn’t his pre-game game plans. Capel makes on-the-fly coaching adjustments that have caught teams off guard over their winning streak.

One example of these adjustments came when starting redshirt junior guard Ishmael Leggett went down with an injury late in December. Instead of relying on a more experienced player to step in for Leggett, Capel relied on first-year guard Jaland Lowe.

Lowe struggled to start his first season, battling injuries and a steep learning curve. To say the move to Lowe was questionable is an understatement. But it has paid off. Lowe has elevated his game to new heights since his elevation to the starting lineup.

Leggett has also positively responded to the new role. Leggett has scored in double digits in seven of the Panthers’ last eight contests. 

Despite the difference in starting roles, a bulk of Lowe and Leggett’s production comes when the two are on the court with each other. Because of the inconsistencies in the Panthers’ frontcourt, as of late, Capel has opted for a three-guard lineup of Lowe, Leggett and first-year guard Carlton Carrington. 

These small lineups, while not normal, have added a new dimension to the Panthers’ offense and make their offense unstoppable at times. 

While adjustments are all around basketball, Capel has implemented adjustments that have brought the best out of his players. 

Blake Hinson

Explosive is a word to describe Pitt’s offense at times. The Panthers rank No. 1 in the ACC, with 9.6 made three-pointers per game. The leader of that offense — and the Panthers as a whole — is senior forward Blake Hinson. 

Hinson’s story is well documented. While he is an eccentric and entertaining player off the court, what he is doing on the court is gaining national attention. Hinson averages 19.2 points per game. Hinson’s go-to move is deep three-pointers that make opponents’ and fans’ jaws drop.

But Hinson isn’t just a flashy player. Hinson elevates his game when the Panthers need him most.

Against Duke, the Panthers needed a win in enemy territory against a top-10-ranked team. Hinson, coming off his worst six-game stretch during his time at Pitt, scored 24 points on perfect 7-for-7 shooting from three. 

Against Virginia, the Panthers needed a win in enemy territory to break a 23-game home win streak held by Virginia. Hinson answered the bell once again, dropping a team-high 27 points against the Cavaliers, including 16 second-half points. 

Against Louisville, in a can’t-lose game where the Panthers’ offense started slow, Hinson willed the Panthers to victory with a career-high 41 points on 9-for-13 shooting, breaking the Petersen Events Center point record. 

When the Panthers need someone to step up, it’s Hinson. And he has done so, and then some, for the Panthers down the stretch of their season turnaround. 

Road Warriors

After home losses to Missouri, Clemson, Syracuse, North Carolina and Duke, the Panthers needed to carve out victories by traveling into opponents home courts. The Panthers have found an identity as road warriors as the season has progressed.

It started against Duke against the Cameron Crazies, and the Panthers prevailed. Pitt traveled to Louisville, Georgia Tech, NC State and Virginia and walked out victorious. 

The Panthers hurt themselves by losing in front of their home crowd. Going on the road and winning is no easy feat in the ACC, but the Panthers answered the challenge. 

Underrated defense

With such a prolific offense, Pitt’s defense is often overlooked. But the Panthers’ improvement on the perimeter defense has turned into statistically one of the best units in the ACC. 

Pitt ranks No. 3 in the ACC in fewest points allowed per game, with 66.2. Pitt only allows opponents to shoot 29.7% from three, ranking first in the ACC. 

Lowe, Carrington and Leggett hound opposing guards. Redshirt junior forwards Zack Austin and Will Jeffress help contain opposing teams’ forwards. All around, the unit is a feisty one.

Where the Panthers can improve is on the inside. The Panthers have yet to find a commanding presence in the paint, but if junior center Federiko Federiko or sophomore forward Guillermo Diaz Graham can step up, the Panthers can continue to ascend the defensive ranks.

The season is far from over, and the Panthers are not locked in the NCAA tournament. Six games remain and the Panthers still need to win at least four of them and then have a good display in the ACC tournament in Washington, D.C., beginning on March 12.

But the Panthers are clicking at the perfect time and are eyeing a double bye in the ACC tournament. In what was once looking like a lost season, Pitt is right where it wants to be.

About the Contributor
Jermaine Sykes, Assistant Sports Editor
Jermaine Sykes is the Assistant Sports Editor for The Pitt News. He is a part of the College of Business and Administration class of 2024 and is double majoring in Marketing and Human Resources Management. He is also pursuing a Sports Management certificate and an Economics minor. He has written over 90 articles as a member of the sports staff.