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Despite record, Pitt basketball continues to struggle against weaker teams

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The Pitt basketball team squeaked out another win last night against a lackluster opponent, defeating Northern Illinois, 59-50. The win pushes the Panthers’ record to a respectable 8-3 and, given that Pitt has already faced six power conference teams, that’s a solid mark.

Few could look at the team’s record to this point and be disappointed. The Panthers have already faced three teams that are currently ranked and one, Louisville, was recently No. 1 in the nation. Throw in games against Kansas State, Northwestern, and Rutgers, and the team has faced tougher competition to this point than they do most seasons by this time.

But prodding a bit deeper, it’s hard not to be concerned about how the team has fared against weaker competition.

I’ll be honest with you, folks. Some of these games have been very tough to watch. Even beyond that, there’s just very little buzz around the program like there was early last year when Pitt was mostly blowing by teams in the non-conference schedule and proving they were headed in the right direction. This is really the opposite of that. Even if the team is actually better, the amount of interest seems like the very definition of a sophomore slump. I just don’t know how many people are even a little excited about the basketball product right now.

I’m not basing all of that off of the snooze fest that was last night’s game. It was empty, which, with students on break and a weeknight game after the team had been off for more than a week, you’d sort of expect. But the buzz around the season as a whole just seems ... lacking? Part of that is probably the way the football season ended with a lot of enthusiasm about Pitt in general just sort of dying down. And part of that, I think, anyway, is that some of these early games have just not been real pretty to watch. And ironically, it’s the games against the lesser teams on the schedule that have been the tougher ones to digest.

Pitt started things off in dubious fashion with a loss to Nicholls. While it was hoped that perhaps Nicholls was better than expected (especially after they took Illinois to overtime in their opener) that hasn’t panned out yet. Nicholls is only 6-5 on the year and has already lost to 3-8 MEAC team North Carolina A&T. They have played a tough schedule so far but that is still probably going to be a bad loss by the time the end of the season rolls around.

The Panthers then played Robert Morris and, while they ultimately won by 14 points, the score was tied at halftime. Pitt also struggled against Monmouth, winning by 13 but leading at the break by only two in an ugly 21-19 half. Pitt led in that game by only five with about 8 12 minutes remaining before pulling away a little.

The Panthers did blow by Arkansas Pine-Bluff, easily taking that game by 25 points but they again had another close call last night in a game that should have been much easier. Pitt trailed much of the game before regaining the lead with only under three minutes left and eventually winning by nine. I’m still frankly surprised they pulled that one out.

If the team had performed like this last year, these games would be easier to expect. But while the Panthers definitely had some struggles against weaker teams, they mostly dominated them. Sure, there was the ugly loss to Niagara. But after a 16-point win against Youngstown State, Pitt beat VMI in their follow-up by 39 points. They beat Troy by 19. Beat Central Arkansas by 26. Beat Duquesne by 19. Beat Maryland Eastern Shore by 35. Beat New Orleans by 42. Last year’s team just seemed hungrier and, more specifically, had a much easier time scoring points. On a few occasions, they nearly scored 100 points.

But what’s been the difference? Mostly, the offense. Pitt is shooting only about 41% from the field as a team right now, which is 286th in the nation. Worse yet, Pitt has been the three-point shooting. There, the Panthers are connecting on fewer than 26% of their attempts — good for 342nd in the nation.

Pitt returned much of its core from last year but the biggest variant is that there’s no Jared Wilson-Frame. Wilson-Frame was constantly harassed by fans (on occasion, by this one) and really a popular target during his time here when he was struggling at times. But he shot just under 40% from three-point range last year and was really a stabilizing force of sorts when the Panthers’ offense had some trouble.

Now, I’m not here to tell you the team can’t be successful without him. But I do think that, despite his ups and downs, the Panthers could use him this year — especially from beyond the arc. Xavier Johnson and his 39% three-point shooting this year is the only player that’s been somewhat efficient there over the course of the season. Ryan Murphy has cooled off considerably and is down under 29% from that range. Trey McGowens isn’t doing much better only at 31.6% — and that was after a 4-8 outburst last night. Heading into the game, he was under 27% on the season from long-distance. Simplifying things, the Panthers just don’t have shooters.

It goes deeper beyond that, of course, and someone with an eye on the analytics could probably detail that with more nuance. But in general, if you just sit and watch this team, there’s little offensive flow. They will, on occasion, get the ball inside to mixed results. And, on occasion, Johnson will show why he’s an NBA prospect and make a singularly outstanding play to get into the paint or deliver an excellent bounce pass, as he did on one play last night. But there are too few of those moments and without true knock down shooters, you’re just sort of left wondering who’s going to show up on a particular night to make shots.

Where Pitt continues to over deliver is on the defensive end. They had another strong game last night, holding Northern Illinois to only 50 points. On the season, they’re giving up fewer than 60 points a game and, again, that’s despite playing more than half of their games against power conference teams already. That’s good enough for 16th in the nation. Even an excellent team in Louisville that manages nearly 80 points per game got only 64 against the Panthers.

Some of that is probably game flow as Pitt’s games seem to be at a pretty slow pace. I’ve got no metrics on that, just eyeballing. But I also think the defense is legitimately pretty solid and that’s evidenced by the fact that they are holding teams to under 40% shooting from the field.

That has what has helped them get past some of these offensive woes. But at some point, the Panthers are going to have to do more offensively if they want to really make waves in the ACC. The schedule has been somewhat challenging compared to what many teams have faced already but it’s going to get markedly tougher. And these struggles against some of the weaker teams they’ve faced aren’t particularly encouraging.

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