Kovacevic: Capel, Pitt face ‘fight’ headfirst


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Jeff Capel motions to his players Wednesday night at Petersen Events Center. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

“That's who we are.”

Well, there it was. I’d asked Jeff Capel a strategic question, and he came back like Socrates.

And that, I thought, spoke almost as powerfully to the state of this unmistakably rejuvenated Pitt basketball program as just about anything that’d just been witnessed in the Panthers out-scraping, out-scratching and eventually out-everything-ing Florida State, 63-61, Wednesday night at Petersen Events Center.

To repeat, though, it spoke almost as powerfully.

Because these types of sequences, at least from this perspective, spoke loudest:

Pretty boring, huh?

Capel himself called the game "ugly," and he was being generous to the general precision of both teams, even if that was understandable with both teams opening their seasons with an ACC game, thanks to the omnipresent lure of TV money and, in this case, a national ESPNU broadcast.

I'm with Jim Boeheim, by the way, who spoke up to reporters on this subject up in Syracuse on this same night:

So yeah, it was ugly with both cause and effect.

Look again at both sequences up there: Ryan Murphy's look inside was rejected halfway down the floor by Florida State's 6-8 Harrison Prieto, and Justin Champagnie was handled similarly under the hoop by 6-9 Malik Osborne. Trust me, those were anything but outliers, with the freakishly tall Seminoles -- I didn't even cite their two 7-footers -- defending every bit as mercilessly as they had this past March in reaching the Sweet 16, flailing their long arms like helicopter blades. It often felt as if a Pitt player would get decapitated if he dared leap upward anywhere near the paint.

And yet, the Panthers never stopped forcing this particular issue. They didn't just dare. They did it. They pounded inside, time and time again, always coming back for more, like Charlie Brown the kicker vs. Lucy the holder.

To be blunt, it seemed senselessly stubborn. At the half, the Panthers had made six whole field goals, four of those from outside the arc, only one inside the paint. They'd been out-blocked, 5-0. And the rebounds were ... wait, they were even?

Oh, wow, look at that: 20-20. And by evening's end, that wound up 37-35 in their favor. With all nine participants pulling down at least one, and no one pulling down more than three guards: Trey McGowens had seven, including the biggest of all, and Xavier Johnson and Murphy had six each.

That's fantastic. But it isn't fluky.

Capel described himself as "Really happy" with the rebounding, adding, "I thought that was the key of the game."

Terrell Brown, the junior forward who'd come up huge in the second half with 11 of his 13 points, would say of the Seminoles, "We know from the past they're always trees. They're very tall. So Coach drilled that it would be a team rebound effort. Not one or two guys will do it."

I loved it. Stop right here, because I'd have loved this even if the Panthers had been blown out by 30.

This, my friends, is Pitt basketball.

It's Pitt basketball as defined first by Ben Howland, then Jamie Dixon over a dozen years of unprecedented excellence. It's the identity that'd been in place here since before it opened. It's as Capel had worded it earlier in the week in response to our Hunter Homistek, "I’m hopeful that our identity will always be that we fight, we compete, that there’s a toughness about us, and that we play intelligently."

All of that was witnessed here.

And no, there'd be nothing senseless or stubborn about the approach. Because what came next were the benefits:

A little prettier, huh?

Johnson had been driving with the same determination early, as had the Panthers' other top guard McGowens, to virtually zero effect. But they kept churning back for more and that, coupled with some more effective outside shooting, softened up the Seminoles in a manner not frequently seen. Same goes for the Brown scene. He and the forwards went from tormented to finally free and, if looking carefully, the Florida State fatigue is evident all around him.

Leonard Hamilton, Florida State's venerable coach, offered this praise for Pitt: "I thought they did a much better job playing to who they are than we did."

That's it.

Let's swing back now to that question I posed for Capel. It was about that relentless push toward the post.

"It's what we do," he began with the full response. "We want to attack. And we feel like we have guards who can create in the paint, get off the bounce, and do something. Yeah, we know Florida State's a team with a lot of size. But we want to challenge that. And break a defense down."

He confidently shrugged.

"That's who we are. That's what we do."

I asked Brown, too, and he took the blunt route:

It's going to be a 'fight,' to borrow from Capel. On the court. Off the court.

On it, they'll need to develop multiple players to legitimately support Johnson and McGowens, and maybe multiple steps were taken here with Murphy and Brown matching Johnson's 13 points. They'll need to continue their trudge up their own symbolic Cardiac Hill, recovering from Stallings' 0-19 ACC catastrophe. And they'll need to do it without elite ACC-level talent, though future prospects for that are more promising than they've been in years with Capel's Midas recruiting touch.

Off it, they'll need to restore faith. It's one thing for Pitt fans to rave about Capel, as they have and did again on social media this week with the release of this stirring locker-room video ...

... but they've also got to commit cash and come watch. Official attendance for his one was 9,015, which left 4,000-plus seats left for a conference opener against an attractive opponent. That was unthinkable not so long ago, and it needs to become that again.

For now, the Zoo was a full-voiced madhouse at the final horn, the new court and other facility upgrades were gorgeous, and the outcome itself couldn't possibly have been more satisfying under the circumstance.

It'll be fascinating to see not only who they are, but also who they'll become.


[caption id="attachment_912922" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Pitt vs. Florida State, Petersen Events Center, Nov. 6, 2019. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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