Pitt’s basketball team survived an up-and-down performance against High Point on Tuesday to win 71-63. If you saw the game, you know it was much closer than the final score indicated.
Pitt (3-4) led by only three at halftime, for starters. They also trailed inside of ten minutes to play and led by only two with a little more than two minutes remaining before beginning to pull away. Suffice to say, it was a game that could have easily been lost.
Before I get too far into the actual game, the attendance deserves a brief mention.
The Panthers played in front of another light crowd and that trend probably won’t change until the team gets into ACC play. Yes, it’s true that the crowd tonight was an all-time low for a regular season game the Pete. The historic lows are going to continue, I’m sure. But at least once the Panthers get into ACC play, they will creep up. It’s not as if Pitt didn’t sell any tickets in the offseason and the folks that bought them won’t be staying away for the entire season.
Even in good attendance seasons, crowds have been down for the non-conference games so I don’t know how truly startling this is. Pitt’s attendance had been dropping steadily as it was and even though it’s now at historic low points, this could have been seen by just about anybody based on the incredibly low expectations this year and the anger by a large part of the fanbase about a coaching hire that was unpopular. The ACC season won’t bring about sellouts but the attendance will increase once we get into conference play. Pitt needs to do its part by winning as many of these early games as they can.
Look, Pitt wasn’t great tonight. Heck, I don’t even know that they were real good given the competition. They took a game they probably should have won by 15 or so and won by only eight, despite the fact that High Point was missing Jahaad Proctor, who averages 18 points a game. They started to pull away on two separate occasions only to see High Point get back into it. The second time, High Point actually took the lead and appeared like they might win, for crying out loud. If you’re looking for a narrative here, it’s that Pitt had enough to win tonight - but barely, which isn’t real encouraging, but is going to be the theme in most of their wins this season.
Still, at the end of the day, it’s a win. And the more the Panthers can do of that these days, the better. Pitt just can’t afford to lose these types of layups because there aren’t a whole lot of them on the schedule. But you know this and I’ve touched on it numerous times this year, already. Let’s move on.
Point guard Marcus Carr had a career night with 19 points. He was also perfect from the field (5-5) and perfect from the line (6-6) while grabbing a career-best five rebounds. He had five turnovers and has struggled in that area but any time you put the ball in the hands of a true freshman as much as Pitt is doing, it’s generally going to end that way.
I know Pitt fans will immediately run to James Robinson and cry foul over that statement but Robinson was the exception and not the rule. Plus, Pitt wasn’t asking nearly as much of Robinson offensively as they are of Carr. Robinson was asked to mostly stay out of the way of a very good team that won 24 games while Carr is being asked to mostly lead a very bad team. Big difference.
On the season, Carr is averaging 10.0 ppg while shooting 44% from the field (including about 50% from three-point range) and that’s just fine. Expecting much more than that from true freshmen, aside of McDonald’s All-Americans, is mostly unrealistic. If he keeps that up through conference play, that’s a pretty successful season, turnovers or not. Looking beyond this year, you see three guys that are going to be real solid contributors in 2018-19, and Carr’s one of them. Other than that, you’ve got a bunch of question marks.
He’s also, by the way, lights out from the free throw line. He’s only missed one all season long and is 20-21 on the year. That’s incredible and is going to be an asset in close games like tonight.
The Panthers also got another great game from Ryan Luther and I’m glad to see him continue to play well. Luther had 15 points and eight rebounds tonight and is shooting about 50% from the field on the season. I don’t know if he’ll keep producing as much against tougher opponents in the ACC but so far, you can’t expect much more out of him. Fellow senior Jonathan Milligan is also producing and, in his case, more than expected. He had 12 points tonight and has really been sort of a source of stability for the team. Craig Meyer of the Post-Gazette wrote a great article on him today. Pitt is certainly getting more out of him than I anticipated, which is nice because it means they don’t have to run Carr into the ground early in his career.
The Panthers’ biggest problem on Tuesday was turnovers. They had 22 of them (to only ten for High Point) and every starter, save for Kene Chukwuku, had at least three. Chukwuku’s box score was probably spared in that he only played 12 minutes. Shamiel Stevenson, Pitt’s primary player off the bench, had three as well. There’s just nothing to say here and overanalyzing it is fruitless. This is a young team that’s going to turn the ball over. Even the seniors like Luther and Milligan are going to turn it over, too, because they’re being asked to do more than they’re accustomed to. These were guys that were role players and are now leaders and starting while playing with younger guys that are going to make mistakes. There will be nights when Pitt manages them and keeps the turnovers to the 10-12 range. There are also going to be nights like tonight when they have twice that amount. There’s just really nothing to add.
So seven games in, where does Pitt stand? Well, 3-4 is bad but it’s probably only about one game off of where you’d expect. Maybe you figure Pitt beats Montana to get to 4-3 but that’s probably the only real surprise. Anything beyond that and instead of wanting to run Kevin Stallings out of town, fans are probably trying to sign him to an extension. Mostly, this is where we’d figure Pitt would be at this point.
The good news for Pitt is that they’re starting to find a way to win games. They did that against UC Santa Barbara, pulling away late, and they did it again tonight. When they lost the lead late in the second half tonight, they could have folded. Instead, they made a few plays and also hit their free throws. I talked about Carr but overall, they were 19-22 from the line. They won’t always be that hot but, as a team, they’re around 75% on the year. That could make a difference in close games, as I said about Carr earlier.
Pitt will have a shot to get out of the non-conference season with a record over .500. No, that’s not cause for celebration given the number of cupcakes on the schedule, but it is better than the three-win or four-win non-conference season that looked mighty possible after Pitt was blown out of the water by Penn State a few games back. A 7-6 record in the non-conference season would, if nothing else, be an avoidance of a worst-case scenario and if you’re looking for a way to keep fans somewhat interested in the start of the ACC season, that would help. You get there at 3-10 or 4-9 and no one will be paying attention.
The bad news is that Pitt is sort of crawling along with some of these games and it seems like they’re kind of holding on by a thread. Because of that, you can’t help but think some more ugly losses are headed their way this season. And I know that the focal point is going to be mostly on how Pitt looks in these games where they’re squeaking by, let’s be honest, bad teams. That’s fair. But what the team needs is wins at this point for both fan interest and as a placebo of sorts for player confidence.
And any way they come, frankly, is fine by me.