Too late at this point

In­ex­pe­ri­ence has no place now after 16 games

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Sports - craig meyer

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.”

Ben McKe­own/As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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