What I've Learned about Pitt Basketball after 3 Games

(Ben Queen/USA Today Sports)

Heading into the 2021-2022 season, I knew it was going to be a struggle for this Pitt basketball team.  There are a lot of new faces and a lot of production to replace from last year's squad, with the loss of star player Justin Champagnie to the NBA, as well as Xavier Johnson and Au'Diese Toney to the transfer portal.  

These new-look Panthers have started the season 1-2, with losses to the Citadel and West Virginia, and their only win coming last night against UNC-Wilmington.  It has been a rocky three games to say the least, so I wanted to talk about some takeaways I noticed from these three games and what that says to the outlook for the rest of the season.

Scoring Shortage

The most obvious thing that has stood out to me so far is the team's ability, or lack thereof, to score.  The Panthers have been held under 60 points in two of their first three games, which is something that may have been common in Pitt's Big East era of basketball but is unsustainable in today's ACC play.  The two top scorers are no surprise - center John Hugley leads the team with 19 points per game and guard Femi Odukale follows with 14 points per game.  However, they're accounting for over 50% of the team's points.  

The main reason for that is this team wants to score in the paint and those two are the most capable to produce around the rim.  It became extremely evident watching last night's game against UNC-Wilmington that this team just does not want to shoot 3-pointers.  They attempted just four of them in the game, making only one.  The Panthers are only shooting 22% from behind the arc so far this season, so I can understand their hesitation, but in today's era of basketball that is not going to win games.  Or even keep Pitt in games for that matter.  

The Panthers appeared so unwilling to shoot threes that I decided to look up how Pitt fared among other teams in the country.  The Panthers rank 356th in the country with nine 3-point attempts per game - DEAD LAST.  That just can't happen in 2021.  Teams will just pack the paint against them defensively, daring them to shoot from the outside.  It's a recipe for disaster and something that cannot continue if they want to remain competitive.

Turnovers and Free Throws

This team also has two other issues that are a cause for concern.  The first is their propensity to turn the ball over.  Through the first three games, they are averaging 19 turnovers per game, ranking 329th nationally.  Against West Virginia alone, they had 32 turnovers. 32!  

Now, Bob Huggins didn't get the nickname Press Virginia for no reason, but that is still an astounding number.  Outside of Odukale, there doesn't appear to be a true ball handler on this team.  If teams choose to press, it creates a lot of havoc for Pitt and will most likely continue to be an issue as the season goes on, especially in conference play.  

Secondly, the free throw shooting woes of the past have carried over into this season.  The team is shooting an embarassing 53% from the free throw line.  I'll never understand why it's so difficult for high-level athletes to make free throws given how young you start practicing them.  Nonetheless, this will certainly be a bugaboo for the team that will lead to blown leads or an inability to get back into future games.

Few Bright Spots

While I've harped on the negatives of this team so far, there are a couple of bright spots that are worth mentioning.  The first is the, aforementioned, John Hugley.  Hugley has looked very impressive three games into the season, averaging 19 points and nine rebounds per game.  He will be the main scoring option on this team, so if he can continue to stay out of trouble, both legal and foul, he will be a huge asset.  

Another is the amount of youth on this team.  Although this may be the main contributor to all of the negative things I've said above, this team is still learning.  The loss of veteran guard Nike Sibande to a torn ACL was extremely costly to this team's outlook and has forced more young players into the rotation, such as guard Nate Santos.  Second-year player Will Jeffress just turned 18 and is playing 31 minutes per game.  There are a bunch of players that have been thrust into a bigger role as a result and the experience can only benefit them for the future.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, my main takeaway so far is that this is going to be a long season.  There are stretches of the game where I have to divert my attention to something else because the gameplay is just that ugly.  But, that's part of the growing pains of having a young team.  

Between the youth and the addition of three transfer players (Jamarius Burton, Mouhamdaou Gueye and Chris Payton), there is still some chemistry to be built by all of these new faces as the season goes on.  I expect the play to improve slightly but not enough to contend in most ACC games.  If you can't shoot 3-pointers, make free throws and eliminate turnovers, you're going to lose more games than you win.  It's as simple as that.  

Regardless, I look forward to watching this team grow over the course of the season and hope to see gradual improvements from game to game.  The Panthers take on Towson on Friday at 6 PM where they look to clean up some of their mistakes to get back to a .500 record.