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Pitt's Backyard Brawl loss highlights frontcourt needs

Pitt’s bigs combined for four points, six rebounds and nine fouls

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt met West Virginia on the hardwood in Morgantown for the first time since Jan. 30, 2012, over the weekend, and the result was something of a disappointment. In a contest that was chippy from the start and subject to some questionable officiating, the Panthers fell to the Mountaineers 69-59. However, it wasn’t the officials who cost Pitt the game. It was the team’s lack of frontcourt talent and the failure of its upperclassmen to rise to the occasion.

Turnovers were a constant issue for both teams, and they were bemoaned by ESPN’s announcers throughout the game. However, when addressing Pitt’s, there was a tendency to blame the team’s youth, and those who did so were pointing fingers in the wrong direction.

While freshman guard Xavier Johnson gave up the ball on eight occasions, the only other freshman with a turnover was Trey McGowens, who had a more reasonable two. Pitt had 24 turnovers in total against West Virginia, though, and the other 14 came from non-freshmen, such as graduate transfer guard Sidy N'Dir.

The frontcourt issue was more glaring, as Pitt was outrebounded 41-33 and outscored in the paint 30-22. That was due in large part to the play of West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate, who reeled in a game-high nine rebounds and recorded seven blocks. With that said, his performance was made possible by officials who gave him the benefit of the doubt and allowed plenty of contact in the paint. But in a game that largely came down to low-post play, Pitt lacked the frontcourt talent to mount a response to West Virginia.

Kene Chukwuka saw plenty of action but was unable to outmuscle the Mountaineers in the paint. As a result, he finished the game with four points to go with four fouls. The alternative was Terrell Brown, who contributed zero points in 16 minutes but managed to foul out in that brief span. The two also failed to pull their weight on the boards, grabbing just six combined rebounds. Johnson, a 6’3” guard, pulled in as many rebounds on his own.

Pitt head coach Jeff Capel addressed the frontcourt issue after the game.

“We can’t simulate their size, their athleticism, their length,” Capel said. “We don’t have those types of guys right now. We work against it. We do what we can do. We practice against the physicality, knowing they’re going to go after the basketball. So there’s going to be contact, and we have to be able to play through contact. I thought at times we did that. I thought at times we didn’t have the poise necessary."

If nothing else, Pitt’s frontcourt deficiencies in its loss to West Virginia should crystallize its pitch to 2019 and 2020 recruits, as the position group was Pitt’s undoing on Saturday. That was just the latest weak performance from Pitt’s bigs, and it underlined the fact that an overhaul is needed at the 4 and 5 spots.

At this point, it should be apparent to players like Kofi Cockburn, Hunter Dickinson, John Hugley and Qudus Wahab, all of whom have received extensive attention from the Pitt coaching staff lately, that the program and its unique situation offer them an opportunity to play a key role on a rising young team. And the fact that Capel has given his freshmen extensive minutes should signal to incoming players that they will get a chance to make an immediate impact, should they choose to come to Pitt. That’s a better opportunity than many other schools are offering.

Pitt’s first chance to land one of the aforementioned recruits will come on Thursday, as Wahab, a 6’10” center and consensus four-star recruit, is set to announce his decision. After that, Cockburn, another 6’10” center with a five-star rating from Rivals, is set to commit in the spring. One of Capel’s first trips upon being hired at Pitt was to New York City, where he saw Cockburn play. Capel also visited Wahab on Thursday with three assistants, per Corey Evans of Rivals.

As is often the case, it’s unclear what will come of the recruitment of either player. But the result of the Backyard Brawl should serve as a reminder of what’s at stake with the recruiting class that Capel is currently assembling.