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Reality stings as Pitt tries to climb from ACC basement

Jerry DiPaola
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt Jeff Capel looks on as Xavier Johnson scores past NC State’s Braxton Beverly in the second half Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 at Petersen Events Center.

Pitt fell into a hole last season that now appears deeper than anyone imagined.

Blinded by a 12-5 start that included victories against top-20 teams Louisville and Florida State, hope surrounded first-year coach Jeff Capel’s program as late as Jan. 14.

Then, reality struck. Pitt is 0-8 since that decisive 75-62 victory against FSU and a loser in 21 consecutive games on hostile courts.

Why? How? What’s next? Here are some thoughts:

1. Pitt doesn’t react well with the game on the line.

Go back four games, and you’ll see Pitt (12-13, 2-10) was within a possession or two of the lead (or actually in the lead) in the latter stages of the second half of each contest.

Sometimes, it’s a whiff on a defensive rebound. Other times, Pitt just misses shots. Often, it’s a turnover that not only robs Pitt of a chance to score, but hands the opponent easy points.

That was the case at Boston College in a 66-57 loss Tuesday night. Down only by one point, Pitt didn’t make a basket in the final 4 minutes, 38 seconds and only one in the last 8:21. The Panthers missed all of their final nine field goal attempts, three of four free throws with the outcome at stake and committed a turnover.

Don’t totally blame youth because Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney were even younger a month ago when Pitt was 2-2 in the ACC.

It goes deeper than freshmen trying to keep their heads above water. After the game, Capel admitted that losing takes its toll, and Pitt has wallowed in it for a long time.

The Panthers have lost 30 of their past 32 ACC games. And if you care to count back to Pitt’s first season in the conference (2014), Pitt is 38-73 since joining.

Some might say the longer you lose, the closer you get to winning.

No.

For Pitt, the more it loses, the easier it is to lose again. It’s a culture that can change, but it can’t happen in one season.

2. There is no significant offensive threat.

Johnson is on the brink of rewriting Pitt’s freshman scoring record. He needs 29 points to pass Charles Smith, who had 435 in 1985.

But he either has to drive through traffic to score (often with some incredible acrobatics) or shoot over a zone defense. He’s had only three games in which he scored fewer than 10 points and they all occurred in the past month, including an eight-point effort at BC.

After his team shot 29 percent from the field in that game, Capel spoke honestly when he said, “We don’t have an inside presence.”

He wasn’t trying to be mean. His words weren’t meant to motivate.

He was merely explaining a situation he inherited when he was hired 11 months ago.

3. Capel has the tools to fix the problem.

He’s a seasoned basketball lifer, a dynamic, authoritative presence when he walks into a room and starts to speak and a respected man by high school players and coaches throughout the ACC footprint.

He also has four scholarships to give, perhaps more after the roster shakes out in the off-season.

The rest of the season offers reasonable hope for last-place Pitt to win a game or two, with games against Georgia Tech, Miami and Notre Dame (a combined 8-25). But the Panthers already have lost to Wake Forest and Boston College (5-16).

It’s called reality.

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