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Pitt pulls away for win over Youngstown State in season opener, 69-53

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

After a close half, Pitt pulled away for a 69-53 in over Youngstown State in the season opener. The win was not only the first victory of this season but also of Jeff Capel’s head coaching career with the Panthers.

In case you didn’t watch, this was an ugly, ugly game. At least the first half was. It reminded me of one of those halftime contests you see when you trudge out two teams of 12-year-olds. Now, I’m not saying the skill level is comparable, obviously. But it was just a sloppy game played by two teams that, at this point, anyway, aren’t real good. Loads of missed layups, a botched breakaway dunk, and just generally bad basketball.

Each team had about ten turnovers in the first half and when I checked the box score at the break, I was kind of surprised by that since it seemed like a lot more, to be honest. Part of that was guys just weren’t grabbing the ball. There were a lot of scrums where guys couldn’t grab rebounds and it was just messy all around.

Things improved for the Panthers in the second half, though, and they started to pull away, which helped them open up to a double-digit lead and ultimately win pretty comfortably.

These guys will get better and there’s at least something to work with here. The most impressive players for Pitt to me were true freshman starters Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson, as well as junior forward Malik Ellison. What I liked most about those two guys was their ability to get to the basket on a consistent basis. The two freshmen combined for 33 points (McGowens’ 17 led the team) and Ellison also added 13.

There’s a foundation with that trio and something you can at least build on. Those guys looked very poised. You’d expect that out of Ellison and obviously, the competition was suspect. But the freshmen, while they made some mistakes (i.e. McGowens’ seven turnovers), they looked very comfortable out there. The backcourt of McGowens and Johnson was very impressive given it was their first game and you can add freshmen Audiese Toney in there as well. Toney finished with 12 points and a team-high nine boards, and went somewhat under the radar with a very nice game.

More good news, in a sense, is that Pitt was playing without senior Jared Wilson-Frame, who was the team’s leading scorer last year. He was suspended for a team rules violation (unspecified) and sat out the contest. Obviously it’s not great that he missed the game but that Pitt managed to win by as much as they did without him is a good sign.

Speaking specifically to JWF, I’ll be curious to see what his role is. I think he’s going to be a big part of the offense, obviously. But the four guys I mentioned above will get plenty of time out there and it’s going to be interesting to see how much Wilson-Frame is required to do. Even beyond that, I don’t think you want to hamper the development of the younger players, either. Wilson-Frame’s experience will be sorely needed when the competition gets better. But it’s also important that these guys play a lot so that they are prepared next year when Pitt will hopefully be able to show some real improvement.

Getting back to McGowens and Johnson, it’s clear those two guys are really the focal point of the future. They’re going to play a lot this year and, as I said in the season preview, I mentioned their ultimate replacements this season would be able to do as much as they did last year. It’s only been one game but those two look very capable of matching the 19 points they combined for last year.

One concerning thing was Pitt struggling with some pressure that Youngstown State applied. The Penguins put on a full court press and Pitt really had some trouble with it, committing several turnovers. That’s going to happen with a young team and you can expect some teams (at least those capable of playing that pace) will try to employ that strategy to get them rattled. Pitt didn’t look sure-handed at all, even though I don’t think Youngstown State’s pressure was all that intense.

Another issue was that the interior presence for Pitt was lacking. Terrell Brown was virtually non-existent and the rebounding was an issue all game. Until the Panthers get more from their bigs, it’s going to be a long season when they start seeing better competition. Kene Chukwuka was competent off the bench with seven points and eight rebounds but Brown is going to need to do more on the glass.

Defensively, Pitt was ... aggressive? Guys did a lot of moving around and were pretty active. But, despite Youngstown State only scoring 53, I don’t think the defense was great. They bricked a ton of wide open looks and it could have been a different game if they were even competent. They shot 26% from the field and while some of that might have been because of Pitt’s defense, it was largely of their own doing. Pitt also gave up a ton of offensive boards (21) and they’re going to have to get better at boxing out and just being in position. If you’re getting pasted on the boards by Youngstown State, it’s safe to call that a problem area.

Here’s the thing. Don’t judge the ability of these guys on this game. Or even this season. It’s going to take a while for them to not only gel but, for many of them, how to play at this level. It takes time. Look at a guy like Parker Stewart who mostly looked like a non-factor at the beginning of the year and became the team’s best player by the end of it. These guys will continue to get better and someone like Toney could even step up to be an even bigger contributor than expected.

All in all, though, we’ve preached that this year isn’t so much about wins and losses. Pitt needs to get these guys some experience playing together and just learning the system of Jeff Capel. And at this point, you take a win any time you can get one.

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