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Pittsburgh lacks the shooting needed for a breakthrough, but its progress continues

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The Panthers are taking small steps forward, but for now that’s enough.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 22 Virginia at Pitt Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jeff Capel is in the second year of his difficult reclamation project at Pittsburgh, where patience for relatively slow steps forward is necessary. Necessary because Capel’s predecessor, Kevin Stallings, was such an unmitigated disaster that the Panthers didn’t even win a league game in his second and final season as coach.

It was impressive how quickly Stallings managed to demolish everything Jamie Dixon established there—the Panthers finished 37th in the Pomeroy Ratings in Dixon’s last season, and two years later that landed with a loud thud at 227th. It turns out that Stallings was even cheating the whole time, and to such an extent that he received a three-year show-cause penalty as a result. What a disaster.

After all that, Capel’s just trying to re-establish some respectability. Pitt won three league games his first season and already has doubled that total in 2020, with two games left to play. That’s encouraging, though the Panthers haven’t been any better overall, ranking 113th in the Pomeroy Ratings after finishing last year 101st. Still, this is progress.

Pitt Offense

2020 Panthers Off_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
2020 Panthers Off_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
Offense 102.8 (162) 44.9 (342) 18.1 (107) 32.4 (47) 35.4 (101)

Already Capel is relying almost entirely on players that he recruited, as the first class he brought in represents the backbone of the team as sophomores. The Panthers have one of the youngest rosters in the country, which Capel hopes will pay off over the next couple of seasons.

They aren’t ready to turn a corner just yet, and won’t be until they can figure out how to score more efficiently. They’ve actually taken a substantial step backward in shooting percentage, which has sunk an offense that has been at least decent in the other factors.

Pitt ranks dead last in effective field goal percentage in league play at a shade over 43%. The Panthers don’t overwhelm with size and have been atrocious inside the arc this season. They also lost the best and highest-volume perimeter scorer (Jared Wilson-Frame) to graduation after 2019 and have found no replacement.

The Panthers don’t take a lot of threes, and they’ve made only 29.2% of them in ACC games. They’re trying to generate offense with offensive boards and trips to the free throw line but that can account for only so much when a whole bunch of initial shot attempts are going awry.

Starters

Xavier Johnson (6’3, 200) — A lot of his value is tied to getting to the free throw line, which he does well. In 1+ seasons, he’s attempted 340 free throws, and hit 75% of ‘em. That’s important because he isn’t a good finisher and his outside shooting has been inconsistent. In ACC games, he’s hit under 30% of his threes.

Trey McGowens (6’4, 190) — McGowens is having a conference season he’d rather forget: 32.2% inside the arc and 29.4% beyond it. He’s assuming an above-average portion of the workload, so that’s a significant problem.

Justin Champagnie (6’6, 200) — Here it looks like Capel struck gold, as Champagnie is already Pitt’s most important player. The freshman is shooting 50.5% on twos and has been an excellent rebounder at both ends, all while maintaining a low turnover rate. If his outside shooting (25.7%) comes around, watch out.

Au’Diese Toney (6’6, 210) — While Johnson and McGowens have languished as sophomores, Toney has shown marked improvement in his shooting both inside and out. Most of his attempts will come inside the arc, but he’s good enough from outside to keep teams honest, at least.

Eric Hamilton (6’9, 230) — The UNCG transfer has been solid in the paint but just doesn’t account for a lot of shots, nor does he tend to play a bunch. He is outstanding on the offensive glass, but foul trouble is an issue.

Bench

Ryan Murphy (6’2, 185), Terrell Brown (6’10, 235), Abdoul Karim Coulibaly (6’8, 215). Expect Murphy, who is a transfer from Charlotte, to have the most noticeable impact off the bench. (He could also start.) Murphy made 40% of his threes in his lone season with the 49ers and has been Pitt’s best perimeter threat in 2020, though he’s shooting just 33.3%.

Brown is an outstanding shot blocker and strong on the offensive glass—he’s also shooting 57.7% inside the arc during league play. But he’s carried a light workload as a secondary option this season.

Pitt Defense

2020 Panthers Def_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
2020 Panthers Def_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
Defense 97.3 (89) 49.4 (167) 23.3 (17) 33.8 (341) 25.3 (31)

Capel has established Pitt’s defense as a lot more disruptive in terms of both blocked shots and turnovers forced. The Panthers also rely some on zone defense, discouraging opponents from prying too much in the paint, where there are advantages to be had. ACC opponents have made 51.2% of their two-pointers.

Pitt’s efforts tend to be undermined by its shoddy performance on the defensive glass, which has been a significant weakness under Capel. When teams don’t turn the ball over against Pitt, they tend to be pretty successful.

The Pomeroy Predictor likes NC State by nine.