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Syracuse holds off Pitt, 69-61

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Pitt traveled to Syracuse for a road ACC matchup today and after a big comeback, ultimately lost, 69-61.

In the first half, Pitt (13-7) scored only nine points through the first 13+ minutes against Syracuse (13-7). But as we’ve seen at other times, Pitt showed the ability to fight their way back. The Panthers were shooting 17% at one point late in the first half and I have to imagine a lot fans checked out of this one early. But they fought back and cut a 19-point deficit to a much more manageable 11-point one at the half.

The second half was mostly back and forth and the Panthers cut the lead further, getting it down to three late. But that was as close as they’d get and Syracuse simply made more plays at the end.

This was one of those games you look at and wonder what could have been if the team simply played 40 minutes. No team will go without bad stretches in games. Pitt, however, just seems to have more of those sorts of games than can they can afford.

This game, of course, wasn’t a great matchup for Pitt. The Panthers generally aren’t a good shooting team and, newsflash, that’s not a good way to combat a zone. Many of the team’s possessions showed that as Pitt was forced into perimeter shooting instead of being able to get the ball inside. That wasn’t so bad as the game went on and Pitt warmed up a bit. But the Panthers were so bad early that they were in simply too big of a hole. On a few occasions, Pitt even simply ran out of time on the shot clock, not entirely aware of how much was left. Nothing new, we’ve seen this trick before.

Justin Champagnie and Terrell Brown led Pitt with 25 points and 16 rebounds combined. Those aren’t big numbers but they were 10-12 from the field and very much the exception to the rule today. The Panthers were mostly duds up and down the lineup when it came to offensive efficiency. Xavier Johnson was 3-13 from the field. Terrell McGowens was 2-8. Audiese Toney 2-7. Ryan Murphy 3-9. No one else got into double figures aside from Champagnie and Brown and it was just another really bad shooting day.

As I’ve said before, I’ll be adjudicating this team with more scrutiny next year than I will this year. This year, we know, is about showing improvement. And, for as tough as some of these games are to watch, the team has shown that.

Still, all of that said, as these games and the season drifts on, I keep coming back to one thing in particular — just what kind of jump can this team take next year? Now, there’s a lot of season left. This isn’t about abandoning the kind of growth these guys can, and probably will, make this season. But it’s something I can’t stop thinking about.

Pitt, as we know, relies on a core of mostly young players making you believe they will be poised for a bright future. But here’s the thing. A lot of young teams make dumb mistakes, turn the ball over, etc. I actually think Pitt is improving in that regard. However, the biggest thing that plagues this team are the offensive struggles. And more specifically, the long stretches of barely scoring any points. It’s simple — some nights, these guys simply can’t shoot the ball. I hate oversimplifications like that but that’s really the crux of it if you look at individual games like this one.

In looking ahead, we’ll again presumably see this same cast of characters next year and while some have strung together a few good games in a row, no one has been what you call consistent. Just when someone (i.e. McGowens) looks like they’re turning the corner with that regard, you see a rough stretch. And to my earlier point, is it possible that these struggles offensively for large blocks of time disappears just because the team is a year older?

I’d like to think so but I’m not sure that’s necessarily a maturity issue. Rather, it could be one that has to do with talent. Players like Johnson and McGowens clearly have talent. But can they become more efficient scorers just because they get older? Both are actually shooting worse from the field a year later, for example. They just may not inherently be good shooters at this level and hard work might not necessarily change that.

I’m not convinced this team can’t become a very good one. The players are really too young to make definitive conclusions about. But I do think that when you see so many large stretches of not scoring points putting these guys in these ridiculous holes, it’s fair to wonder if that suddenly goes away with maturity. The team as it’s currently constructed, whether these guys are older are younger, just may not be enough to make much headway.

These guys have improved collectively over last year and there’s no doubting that. However, is it possible that the ceiling for this particular group may not be much higher than what it is now? I’m inclined to say no — that these guys can be significantly better. But the issue of not having a consistent go to star isn’t going away and that probably means the team is in for more starts like today.

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