Pitt hosted NC State at the Petersen Events Center on Wednesday evening and was favored to defeat the 8-9 team by four points. Instead, the Panthers were dealt a disappointing 74-73 loss by the Wolfpack, and once again, the outcome was due in part to costly mistakes made by Pitt point guard Xavier Johnson.
The junior’s effort was by no means the problem, as he contributed 14 points and three assists while shooting 5-for-6 from the field, including 1-for-1 from long range, and 3-for-4 from the foul line. However, his tendency to send opponents to the charity stripe, especially with needless technical fouls, was an issue that arose for the second game in a row.
Coming into Wednesday’s game, Johnson had fouled out of two of Pitt’s previous four games. That was especially problematic, as Pitt had yet to win a game in which he had fouled out at that point, and that pattern held in those contests. And against NC State on Wednesday, he brushed right up against another foul-out, with four personal fouls, including a tech.
During his postgame press conference, Pitt head coach Jeff Capel was asked about his conversations with Johnson about his foul troubles, and he aired out his frustration.
“Nothing I’ve said has worked,” Capel said of his talks with Johnson. “We’ve been telling him for three years, two-and-a-half years now, ‘Stop talking to the refs. Stop being demonstrative.’ Nothing we’ve said has worked”
The tech in question came with just over five minutes remaining in the the first half, after Johnson sunk a three-point shot. He then drifted by an official and appeared to chirp at the NC State bench or the ref. He was called for a technical on the spot. That put NC State power forward D.J. Funderburk on the foul line, where he cashed in on one of two shots.
Immediately after the incident, Capel waved Femi Odukale into the game to take Johnson’s place, and the Brooklyn native checked in moments later. It looked as if that arrangement would stick, too, as Odukale started the second half, with Johnson uncharacteristically perched on the bench. However, Odukale’s own foul trouble saw Johnson return later in the game.
The mid-game benching was not Johnson’s first stint on the sideline. The junior point guard had actually begun the game on the bench alongside Ithiel Horton, and according to Capel, that was punishment for them getting technical fouls against Georgia Tech. It was the second time the two usual starters had been benched in four games, and the first time followed their technical fouls against Notre Dame.
The first time, the message seemed to ring out loud and clear for both players. This time, it clearly did not for Johnson, and as a result, he found himself in the same kind of trouble that landed him on the bench in the first place.
Moving forward, it seems likely Capel will continue to discourage Johnson from the behavior that has gotten him in hot water, and if the stated pattern holds, that means Johnson — and Odukale — can expect to come off the bench against Florida State on Saturday. With that said, it seems a reduction in his minutes could also be in the offing, as Capel was content to play Odukale until that was no longer an option on Wednesday.
However Capel decides to proceed, the decision will be made clear on Saturday, when the Panthers host 16th-ranked Seminoles at the Petersen Events Center. And given the sudden upgrade in opposition, Capel’s call will be highly consequential as Pitt fights to pull out of a three-game losing streak.