Confidence in each other remains high
Progress still evident in seven-game slump
In his nearly 18 months as a men’s basketball player at Pitt, Jared Wilson-Frame has endured much more than many college basketball players handle in entire careers.
There was the 2017-18 season, when he had to shoulder the heaviest offensive load for a plainly overmatched team featuring seven freshmen. In that same season, he dealt with the emotional and psychological toll that came with a winless finish in 19 ACC games. After that was a coaching change, when the man who helped usher him from junior college to the ACC was swiftly fired, leaving him and his teammates wondering for 19 days who would be entrusted with their individual and collective basketball futures.
Through it all, Wilson-Frame has shown a resiliency. So as the Panthers are mired in a sevengame losing streak, it’s difficult to shake his belief in his team and what it can accomplish, even as its record has slipped to .500. After all, he has been through worse.
“We’ve had some guys leave the program, but I’m still just as confident in every huddle, every timeout we’re in,” Wilson-Frame said after a 79-76 loss Saturday to N.C.
State. “We thought we were going to win that game just now. Even with Sidy [N’Dir] taking that shot, I’m thinking it’s going in. My first reaction is it’s going in. I’m going to try to go get the rebound. We have confidence in each other and we have confidence our team; we’ve just got to do whatever it takes to win the game.”
Loss after loss can wear on even the best teams, as the taste of victory seems more elusive with each passing day (in Pitt’s case, it has been 26 days since its most recent win). Whether it’s for veterans such as Wilson-Frame or freshmen like Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens who have carried the team at various points this season, the scars of a losing streak can show themselves in ways big and small.
In those moments, it can be hard to maintain perspective, but in pain, it’s possible to find progress.
After losing their first five games of the current skid by an average of 12.6 points per contest, never falling by fewer than nine points, the Panthers have come up short by just five combined points in their past two defeats. Part of that comes from the level of competition — the first of those two losses came to Wake Forest, a team ranked 176th among 353 Division I squads by KenPom.com, 49 spots behind the next-closest conference competitor — but is it possible those close losses are a sign Pitt is close to breaking through?
First-year coach Jeff Capel believes so, even if that dose of optimism comes with a sage caveat.
“I think we are, but at the same time, we want to win,” Capel said. “We had two opportunities to win and we came up short. I don’t want us to be satisfied with just that, but we are getting better in some areas.”
Given those small margins of defeat, there’s a gnawing sensation from isolated but all-important moments that come with whatever sense of momentum Pitt feels like it has generated.
It’s difficult to look back at the overtime loss at Wake Forest and not think about the front end of the one-and-one Johnson missed with 20 seconds left in regulation and his team up two, Pitt’s failure to bring in three missed shots on the Demon Deacons’ final possession in regulation that ended with a buzzerbeating put-back or Wilson-Frame missing an open 3pointer that would have pushed the Panthers’ lead to six with 3:05 remaining in overtime.
The close calls and lingering what-ifs weren’t quite as plentiful Saturday against the Wolfpack, but there were still moments like the slow start to the second half that turned a three-point halftime deficit into a nine-point one in just 1:27 or the three 3s the Panthers missed in a stretch of 22 seconds in the final minute that would have tied the score, the first of which was a fairly open look from Johnson, their best outside shooter statistically entering the day.
“It’s frustrating because we’re always right there,” Wilson-Frame said. “There are things in close games where there might be in the last couple possessions things you can say ‘If I would have done this better, we would have won.’ The things we’re getting angry about is the fact we’re even putting ourselves in that situation in the first place.”
Though it provides only so much consolation for Pitt, the teams they have played multiple times have recognized the team’s improvement.
“Their record doesn’t indicate how good they are,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said. “They play hard. It reminds me a lot of my team in year one. Jeff’s trying to find the pieces that play together. Those two young guards are really good. They put a lot of pressure on your defense and they always live in the paint. They do a tremendous job. It’s a good Pitt team.”
There’s reassurance in those words, but it’s something this team at this juncture largely knows. Their confidence continues not to wane, but their determination to break their slump, with a road game Tuesday looming against an 11-11 Boston College team that has lost four in a row, only increases by the day.
It’s easier said than done, but, as they see it, all they have to do is remain strong.
“It’s a team effort,” N’Dir said. “We trust everybody. Everybody trusts each other. I feel like we’re going to get out of that slump. That’s how I feel right now. We’re going to get out of it. We just have to keep staying together.”
Sidy N’Dir reacts after his shot to tie N.C. State missed at the buzzer.
Jared Wilson-Frame drives to the basket against N.C. State’s Jericole Hellems in Saturday’s 79-76 loss. The Panthers have lost seven games in a row, but Wilson-Frame said they haven’t lost their confidence.