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‘Tough stretch’ for Pitt begins at No. 23 Louisville

Jerry DiPaola
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Pitt’s Au’Diese Toney grabs a rebound during the first half against Duke on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Pittsburgh.

The first order of business for Pitt freshman Au’Diese Toney at Louisville on Saturday will be to remain calm.

“You always have to be level-headed and keep your composure,” he said.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with talking to the guy you’re guarding, perhaps getting him riled up a bit as the game progresses.

“Little bit, little bit,” Toney said, chuckling.

But, truth be told, Pitt is entering a serious stretch of basketball over the next four games, with three on the road, including rematches with Louisville and Syracuse and the real possibility of falling toward the bottom of the ACC standings. That’s a place Pitt (12-7, 2-4) knows all too well and was hoping to avoid this season.

“This is a tough stretch for us,” senior guard Sidy N’Dir said.

But it’s also a time when the freshmen should be grown up – or close to it – after 19 games.

Toney will confront a personal test when Louisville sophomore Jordan Nwora gets his chance to make amends for the 89-86 overtime loss to Pitt on Jan. 9 at Petersen Events Center.

Toney, one of Pitt’s best defensive players, held Nwora to eight points and an astounding 14.3 shooting percentage (2 of 14). For the season, Nwora is averaging 18.5 points (fifth in the ACC) and shooting 50 percent (sixth in the conference). Toney mentioned nothing special he did against Nwora.

“The main focus is sticking with the game plan and trusting the process,” he said.

After that loss to Pitt, previously unranked Louisville won its next three games and climbed to 23rd in the Associated Press poll by defeating North Carolina, Boston College and Georgia Tech.

So, not only does Pitt have to find a way to win on a hostile court — that hasn’t happened this season in four tries — but it will meet a talented team presumably angry from losing at the Pete.

Meanwhile, the energy Pitt has received from the Oakland Zoo in its two victories at home won’t be there Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center.

It’s another test of maturity, Toney said.

“We always start off with great energy (on the road), but somehow we don’t end with the same energy we start off with,” he said. “It’s all part of us growing up, like coach (Jeff Capel) said, growing up and being mature.”

Trying to win on the road in college basketball is a difficult endeavor. That’s partially because of the proximity of the fans to the court, the noise students love to generate and, perhaps, because most teams don’t do a lot of traveling until the conference season begins.

Capel didn’t fall into that latter trap while building his nonconference schedule, playing four games away from the Pete in a five-game stretch from Nov. 21 to Dec. 3. That included a visit to the West Virginia Coliseum (one of the toughest venues in college basketball), Iowa (ranked No. 14 at the time) and Duquesne (at PPG Paints Arena).

The first road game in that group – Saint Louis on a neutral court — probably didn’t qualify as difficult because only 355 people showed up at Barclays Center.

That won’t be the case at the KFC Yum! Center, capacity 22,090.

“It’s really hard, what they say it is, to win on the road,” Toney said, speaking in generalities. “At home, you have everybody who’s fired up.

“You have to find your own energy when you go away and be able to have it consistent the whole game.”

The other hurdle will be trying to solve a zone defense. Pitt had trouble handling it against Syracuse and Duke, although Capel said better rebounding off the defensive glass and quick strides upcourt will prevent teams from setting up their zone on the other end.

“We are talented enough to get to the paint (against a zone),” Toney said, “ but don’t get into the paint too deep. We have to find open looks.”

The other way to beat a zone is to shoot over top of it.

That strategy didn’t work so well against Syracuse and Duke. Pitt tried 50 3s and made only 14.

That will be a recipe for disaster at the KFC Yum! Center.

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