Pitt came into Tuesday night’s primetime matchup with No. 14 Iowa looking to announce to the nation what kind of team it is now that Kevin Stallings is out and Jeff Capel is calling the shots. While the Pitt fanbase has put the past two years behind it and embraced the team in its reinvented form, many outside of Pittsburgh have yet to rethink their perception of the Panthers. Thus, the nationally televised tilt with the Hawkeyes marked a chance for Capel and his team to win hearts and minds.
While Pitt failed to come up with a win, instead losing to Iowa 69-68 in a hardfought battle decided by a last-second Sidy N’Dir shot that missed the mark, the Panthers played the Hawkeyes closer than both UConn and Oregon did earlier in November. In doing so, they drew praise from national analysts like Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports, Fran Fraschilla of ESPN and Seth Davis of The Athletic, who acknowledged that the Panthers have “dramatically improved from last season.”
But perhaps the most unexpected statement of support came from Iowa radio broadcaster Gary Dolphin, who spoke highly of Pitt’s freshmen and bemoaned the recruiting of Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery in a candid moment when he believed he was off the air.
“How do we not get anybody like that?” Dolphin said, referring to Pitt’s guards. “It’s just year after year after year. Go get a key piece like that. Just get one! They’ve got three or four. It’s the guy’s first year. ... Three pure freshmen, and two of them are in double figures.”
Dolphin’s moment of envy was understandable, given first-year Pitt stars Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney had just carried the Panthers to a 46-40 halftime lead over a top-15 team in the nation. And considering that trio consists exclusively of freshmen, many more scrappy performances like the one against Iowa lie ahead for Pitt.
Johnson, in particular, looks like a star in the making, and he once again led Pitt in scoring and assists in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, adding 18 points and six dimes. However, like the rest of the team, he seemed to take his foot off the gas in the second half, as he scored just six of his 18 points in the final frame.
All told, Pitt added just 22 points to its total in the final 20 minutes Tuesday night. And that’s the staggering thing about Pitt’s performance in Iowa. The Panthers didn’t even play to the best of their abilities in the second half and almost toppled the Hawkeyes despite that. They’re also an incomplete team, as Capel is not so quietly looking to build up his frontcourt through his 2019 recruiting class. So Pitt is not just a work in progress, but one in the early stages of development.
Despite that, on Tuesday night, Pitt’s freshmen played to a level beyond their years and proved they could hold their own against one of the nation’s best teams. In addition, it seems they made significant strides in restoring the team’s reputation after two down years, and Dolphin’s comments stand as a testament to that.
Pitt’s next challenge will come against crosstown rival Duquesne in the City Game. The two teams will meet at PPG Paints Arena at 7 p.m. on Friday night.