After Pitt’s 68-52 loss to Vanderbilt on Wednesday night, Jeff Capel revealed the concepts he believes could help brighten what appears to be the start of a dark season.
“We tried to talk about simple, smart and strong,” he said.
For Capel, those three words translate into: Take good shots, be careful with the basketball and stay connected on defense.
“When we did it, we got good looks (at the basket),” he said.
But with a quiet burst of ironic laughter, he added, “That doesn’t mean we knocked down the shots.”
So true. Pitt shot only 36% while starters William Jeffress and John Hugley were each 0 for 6 and freshman Nate Santos, perhaps the best outside shooter on the team, missed 7 of 8 from beyond the 3-point arc. Hugley, who was benched during the Towson game last week, managed only one point and four rebounds.
“He’s got to play harder every possession,” Capel said of Hugley. “Being a good player is not easy, and he works hard. You have to play harder. You have to talk. You have to be more engaged all the time in every play. We need all our guys doing that all the time. Not just when things are going well.”
Not only did Pitt have trouble shooting from long range, the Panthers managed only two fast-break points.
“At times it looked like …” Capel said, pausing to think of the right words. “It wasn’t pretty. I’ll just leave it at that.”
The Panthers (2-3) came into the game with a two-game winning streak, and they looked to be in a good place when they opened an 18-9 lead with 7 minutes, 29 seconds left in the first half.
Even in the second half, Pitt trailed Vanderbilt (4-1) by only two, 44-42, with 7:58 left in the game. Jamarius Burton missed a foul shot, trying to convert a 3-point play, and that triggered a 24-10 run that turned a close game into a rout.
“Really disappointed in our performance the last 7½ minutes of the first half and the last 12-13 minutes of the second half,” Capel said.
“There was this unbelievable slide during that time where the defense was for us was non-existent,” he said. “We have to be able to play a 40-minute game. We can’t allow our inability to make shots affect our defense because we have not been a good shooting team. We have to understand the dirty work stuff, the help, being connected.”
After playing strong defense to build its early lead, Pitt allowed Vanderbilt’s Trey Thomas to hit four 3-pointers and end up leading the Commodores with 14 points. Perhaps Capel wouldn’t have minded Thomas’ performance so much if he didn’t know the facts: The 5-foot-11 sophomore guard came into the game after hitting only one of his first 18 shots this season.
“He got hot and they kept running things for him and he kept delivering,” Capel said. “Our defense wasn’t good. It wasn’t as connected as it was (when Pitt was leading). We took some shots that maybe weren’t the best shots for us.”
Sophomore guard Femi Odukale, who led Pitt with 14 points, said the team wasn’t playing together.
“We kept bickering at each other,” he said. “We really weren’t that connected how we were in the first half. We saw them hit a couple shots and we got down on ourselves. We have to regroup and talk it out.”
Burton, a transfer from Texas Tech, is one of five players who were in different places other than Pitt’s campus last season.
“Whenever you throw a bunch of guys together, it takes some time to get adjusted,” he said. “We haven’t had a full time with our whole roster. All we can do is learn, grow and get better.
“We have to get everybody to understand that the game’s not over until the clock strikes zero. Today, we didn’t have that sense of urgency throughout the whole 40 minutes.”
Capel understands the difficulty in trying to bring so many new players together. But Pitt plays Minnesota on Tuesday after playing UMBC on Saturday afternoon. Pitt will confront its first ACC opponent Dec. 3 at Virginia.
“It takes time,” Capel said, “but we don’t have time. We have to learn it right now.”