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Pitt basketball faces first major test of season at Iowa

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Iowa forward Luka Garza (55) shoots over Alabama State guard AJ Farrar (13) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

When Pitt defeated Saint Louis last week in a Barclays Classic game that tipped off at noon in Brooklyn, N.Y., there were 355 people in the stands.

Pitt (6-0) played well and won 75-73 against Saint Louis, which has been projected to win the Atlantic 10 this season.

Coach Jeff Capel was pleased, but he also realizes a tougher opponent awaits Tuesday night in Iowa City, Iowa, where Pitt will confront No. 14 Iowa in its first game in front of a hostile crowd.

“I’m interested to see how they are in this environment,” he said. “This will be a packed house. None of our guys have been in this type of environment for a while, and this team hasn’t.”

Iowa (5-0) will test Pitt on several levels, most notably its inexperience. Pitt will start three freshman, and Iowa has returned all five starters from last year.

Also, the Hawkeyes, who are averaging 88.6 points, will be difficult to handle off the glass. Tyler Cook (6-foot-9) and Luke Garza (6-11) are averaging 16 points each. Pitt’s tallest starter is Kene Chukwuka (6-9) who is averaging six rebounds in an average of only 22.3 minutes.

But Pitt has found a way to win its first six games by doing the things that make coaches smile.

“I learned we can beat a good opponent in a neutral place being away from home,” Capel said of the victory against Saint Louis. “We showed toughness. We made tough plays, whether it was finally getting a rebound, stepping up and taking a charge, making free throws down the stretch, following the game plan.”

He said guard Sidy N’Dir played his best game “by far,” scoring 13 points in 26 minutes off the bench.

Capel is happy with the progress his team is making early in the season, but when he heard Pitt is No. 23 in the NCAA’s new NET rankings, he scoffed — mainly because he never had heard of it.

“I have no clue what that is,” he said. “I don’t pay attention to rankings in November. It think they’re all off.”

For what it’s worth, NET ranks Pitt ahead of Arizona (No. 33), Villanova (38) and Kentucky (61) and only eight spots behind Iowa (15).

Likewise, senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame has more interest in how his younger teammates are reacting to their first collegiate experience than any new metrics.

He said he doesn’t expect them to be in awe of the Iowa experience, and he believes they will handle it in the proper manner.

“The one thing I like about our freshmen and all our new players is they actually want to know how it is,” he said. “They ask the important questions of what is it going to be like and what to expect.

“We just tell them, ‘You’re a basketball player. You’re a good basketball player. You excel at this level, so just calm down, trust yourself, trust your instincts. You live for this. This is the moment you thought about getting into before you decided to play here. This is the stuff you want to do.’ “

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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