Too late at this point
Inexperience has no place now after 16 games
RALEIGH, N.C. — Jeff Capel allowed the question to marinate for about three seconds Saturday, initially stopping himself mid-word before pausing and giving his final answer.
How much could Pitt’s mistakes in its loss to N.C. State be tied back to inexperience, given his team starts and relies heavily on three freshmen?
“That excuse is not for us right now,” Capel said. “It’s January. It’s the middle of January. We’re in league play. We have 16 games under our belt right now and these guys have played heavy minutes.”
The Panthers’ 86-80 loss on the road against the No. 15-ranked Wolfpack was the product of many things — offensive rebounds and the second-chance points that came from them, an excellent shooting team rediscovering its stroke at the most opportune time — but to Capel, there was a lack of poise he saw from his team against its opponent’s frenetic pressing defense, one that forced it into 17 turnovers.
Capel’s disregard for inexperience as an explanation for this miscues brings up a question that, at one point or another, arises around any college basketball team with
any semblance of youth — at what point does a freshman stop being a freshman?
To Capel and his players, that question was answered long ago. Officially past the halfway point of the regular season, 16 games in to a 31game schedule, these players — two of whom, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney, would be high school seniors right now had they not reclassified — are veterans. Like it has been for much of the season, they have no other choice.
“He told us we had to grow up fast,” Toney said. “We can’t play as freshmen. That played a part. We had to come with confidence in our game.”
While there isn’t a clear line of demarcation, a specific time when that freshman label ceased being relevant, it’s undeniable that Pitt’s three youngest players have carried its heaviest load.
McGowens, Toney and Xavier Johnson have logged a combined 1,346 minutes — making them three of the team’s mostused players — while scoring 647 of the Panthers’ 1,235 points (52.4 percent), dishing out 116 of their 215 assists (54 percent), making 201 of their 418 shots (48.1 percent) and 197 of their 292 free throws (67.5 percent), along with getting 67 of their 117 steals (57.3 percent).
With that production, though, have come errors that, despite what Capel said, can be traced to inexperience in some way. Johnson poured in a careerhigh 25 points against the Wolfpack, but he did so after picking up two fouls in the opening 10 minutes, the second consecutive game he has done so.
Capel described those miscues as “not smart,” a behavior that needs to be corrected because the team’s other primary ballhandler, Trey McGowens, isn’t quite as comfortable at the position right now, despite making considerable improvement.
There also were Johnson’s six turnovers, his second-highest total of the season. That, too, needs to change, something Johnson knows better than anyone.
“I feel the same way,” Johnson said of Capel’s comment of youth not being an excuse. “I feel I should know what to do and how to take care of the ball better. I already have games where I have multiple turnovers and it shouldn’t be happening right now.”
As the Panthers newcomers continue to mature on the court, they do have some advantages. Unlike last season, when freshmen accounted for seven of the team’s 12 eligible scholarship
players, there are older players who figure prominently in Pitt’s rotation on whom they can lean in moments of uncertainty or vulnerability.
Some of those players need to step up their games, as well. Senior Jared Wilson-Frame has been a constant source of guidance for Pitt’s freshmen, serving as an on-court leader, but he has been mired in a slump that reached a nadir Saturday with a 1-of-10 showing from the field, including a 1of-6 mark from 3-point range. A player whose offensive game is predicated on outside shooting is just 4 of 20 from 3 in three ACC games (20 percent) and over the past eight games, dating to a Dec. 3 loss to Niagara, he is 15 of 54 from beyond the arc (27.8 percent, down from the 47.6 percent he shot in his first seven games).
“We want him to take good shots,” Capel said. “If he takes good shots, we’re OK with that. We just want him to take good shots. Some of the shots he took [Saturday] were good. Some were not good. We’ll talk to him about both.”
While the Panthers have gotten unexpected offensive contributions from the likes of sophomore Khameron Davis — who went 3 for 3 from 3-point range in a season-high 25 minutes against N.C. State — it has seen once-prominent veterans such as Malik Ellison fade. The team captain largely has been a non-factor on offense the past seven games, averaging 4.1 points per game in that time, compared to the 10.2 he averaged in the first nine, and has seen his minutes wane.
As the team prepares for a quick turnaround with a game Monday against a top15-ranked Florida State squad, it knows most of its pieces, not just its youngest ones, have to improve.
“When we were poised, I thought we did some good things,” Capel said. “When we were not and we allowed physicality to get to us, we didn’t have poise in that situation. We have to get better.”
Xavier Johnson, right, and N.C. State’s Braxton Beverly battle for a loose ball Saturday. Johnson had a game-high six turnovers in the Panthers’ 86-80 defeat.