As we begin a new year, I wanted to highlight a few things that have gone mostly unnoticed, but will be vital as the Pittsburgh Panthers (10-3) enter ACC play. It’s safe to say that most fans who’ve followed the team thus far would agree that the coaching staff has done a great job. Of course a big part of that is the hard work the players are putting in during practice and how well their executing during games. Still, it’s the job of the coaching staff, particularly head coach Jeff Capel, to make sure everyone is on the same page.
If I were to divide the games the Panthers have played thus far and label them based on an offensive philosophy, here’s how I would do it:
- Youngstown State - North Alabama: Multiple Ballhandlers
- Saint Louis - West Virginia: Rise of Xavier Johnson
- Maryland-Eastern Shore - Colgate: Motion and Secondary Action
The above clip shows just how far the Pitt offense has come in a very short time. Not only do the Panthers begin several possessions with a series of dribble handoffs, but the players involved and the order in which they touch the ball varies.
Teams were preparing for Johnson with the ball in his hands over the last month (more on this in my next article), so working him off the ball to close non-conference play was a really smart move. He attracts a ton of attention, and that opens up opportunities for other players as they catch teams in rotation.
Here we see some nice off-ball screens coming out of a dribble handoff which frees Johnson as he makes his way back to the weak side as the ball begins to rotate around the perimeter to him. This requires great timing and execution by the entire team, and is something that must be practiced over and over to be game ready.
One game later, Pitt ran a very similar play early in the game against the New Orleans Privateers. The difference? Johnson’s defender gets absolutely blindsided by the screen set by junior forward Kene Chukwuka. In this clip Johnson’s defender is more prepared and goes over Chukwuka’s screen to keep himself between the ball and Johnson, but he oversells on trying to get past the next screen.
This is fantastic read by Johnson, but it’s also a testament to the coaching staff as they clearly were prepared for the counter. No, Johnson doesn’t make the shot but having a counter to what will likely be a part of their offense is just good coaching and preparation.
As far as I can tell, the Panthers have run this set for the last three games, all with Johnson. I wouldn’t be surprised if freshman guard Trey McGowens plays the role of Johnson as he’s proving himself to be a very reliable three-point shooter from either wing, especially when it’s uncontested.
Let’s get to a little bit of defense here. Pitt’s staple on that end of the court thus far has been applying a ton of on-ball pressure. Johnson or McGowens will generally pick up their man at three-quarters court and they can trap anything right below the free throw line to around the wing if the offensive player dribbles too close to the sideline, especially if they pick up their dribble.
The 2-3 zone in the clip above is something they’ve gone to in several of their games this season. Teams consistently try and attack the middle of the zone, which opens up passes to either short corner as the middle anchor is forced to come up to defend. The 2-3 zone of the Syracuse Orange relies heavily on length, the Panthers zone relies more on their athletes and pressure.
New Orleans was prepared for the zone. They immediately sent a player to the middle that would shift to the strong side and look for an entry pass. Pitt denies the first two looks with a combination of on-ball pressure and when Chukwuka steps in. When the pass attempt is finally made, junior guard Malik Ellison is able to come from the weak side to disrupt the pass, as that was the only one available given the angle. The result is a turnover.
The Panthers have generated about as many turnovers in the 2-3 zone as they have forced contested jumpers as the result of a stagnant offense. Whether or not they’ll have this kind of success in the ACC remains to be seen. But at the very least, it does show that the coaching staff has a really firm grasp on how the team needs to execute this defensive scheme.
Jeff Capel and his staff have truly done a tremendous job getting the most of this group. Even if we take away the schemes, counters, and the teams execution the players just play extremely hard. That type of buy-in and effort starts at the top and trickles down.