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Pitt has time for a reversal of fortune | TribLIVE.com
Pitt

Pitt has time for a reversal of fortune

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Pittsburgh head coach Jeff Capel yells to his team as they play against Duke during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Pittsburgh. Duke won 79-64. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Perhaps the cynics among Pitt basketball fans will find this hard to believe, but there’s still time – and even resources – available to salvage the season.

With eight games remaining, starting Saturday at Petersen Events Center against slumping N.C. State, Pitt should be competitive in most games. The only ranked teams on the schedule are No. 3 Virginia and No. 11 Virginia Tech.

Of course, the reality is Pitt (12-11, 2-8) is tied for last place in the ACC with Notre Dame (12-11, 2-8), Miami (10-12, 2-8) and Wake Forest (9-13, 2-8). But Pitt plays the Irish and the ‘Canes later this month, plus Boston College (11-10, 2-7), after an overtime loss at Wake Forest on Tuesday.

All those teams are struggling. The Panthers can win them all, but they also can lose them all.

Here are three thoughts as Pitt approaches the home stretch of Jeff Capel’s first season:

1. Don’t be fooled by N.C. State.

The Wolfpack were ranked 15 th by the Associated Press when Pitt visited Raleigh, N.C., and lost, 86-80. At one time, they were 13-1.

But hard times are following N.C. State, too. After scoring 24 points in a 23-point loss to Virginia Tech, the Wolfpack recovered to put up 96 while allowing 113 to North Carolina only three days later.

Capel called the 24-point effort – a record low for an ACC team in the shot-clock era – “a big-time aberration.”

Capel correctly pointed out that N.C. State has been one of the better scoring teams in the conference (fifth in shooting percentage at 47.3), even when you factor those 45 misses in 54 attempts (2 of 28 from beyond the 3-point arc). In the eight games before the Virginia Tech game, N.C. State was averaging 76.2 points per game.

“They just had one of those nights. They had good looks. They just missed shots.”

Things returned to normal against North Carolina. The Wolfpack (16-7, 4-6) didn’t play much defense, but they did shoot 50 percent (37 of 74) from the field.

2. Xavier Johnson does a lot, but can’t do it alone.

Johnson is in the midst of one of the best freshman seasons in the history of Pitt basketball. He is averaging 17 points per game (eighth in the ACC) and is fourth on Pitt’s all-time freshman scoring list with 391 points. He needs only 45 to break the all-time record of 435 set by Charles Smith in 1985.

The problem: Johnson is averaging 31.4 minutes per game. “I have to do a better job of getting him a break periodically,” said Capel, pointing out Johnson played all but four seconds of the overtime loss to Wake Forest.

3. The team keeps fighting, and the fans keep coming.

The atmosphere at the Pete is unlike what you might expect from a team that has only two victories since Dec. 29.

If that continues Saturday and the Panthers do what Capel demands – play more as a team less as individuals – Pitt has a chance to salvage the season and finish with an overall winning record.

“We’re trying to give hope,” Capel said, sending a message to fans. “We’re trying to give hope for the future. We’re trying to give hope for right now. We’re fighting, but we have to be able to do more than fight. We have to be able to close.”