Chris Mueller: Back from the dead, Pitt basketball is fun - and good
It still feels like a bit of a surprise to be writing this, but here we are:
Pitt basketball is fun again. Pitt basketball is also good again.
If they didn’t have you sold with a win over 25th-ranked North Carolina just before the new year, perhaps their win over then-11th-ranked Virginia a few days later did the trick. If back-to-back losses to Clemson and Duke immediately after the Virginia win shook your faith, perhaps it took until around 6 o’clock Saturday for you to fully come around.
That’s about the time that Jeff Capel’s team put the finishing touches on a game-closing, game-winning 11-0 run to beat 20th-ranked Miami, 71-68. It might not have been Pitt’s best win this year ― Virginia was still a pretty big one ― but it was definitely the most improbable.
This year’s team has made its bones with sharpshooting, like when they fended off Wake Forest (another quality victory, by the way) with a school-record 18 three-pointers not even a week ago.
Against the Hurricanes, though, the Panthers turned back the clock and relied on a familiar formula ― lockdown defense ― to get the win. Not for the whole game, mind you. Miami appeared fully in control with just under two-and-a-half minutes to play, up 68-60. They would not score again, as Pitt finished on an 11-0 run, one sparked by tough defense, forced turnovers, and team play at the offensive end.
How fitting, then, that a victory whose stylistic quality harkened back to the program’s glory days of the 2000s and early 2010s was accompanied by something else from that era; a raucous, sellout crowd that Blake Hinson cited as a major factor in the victory.
Pitt doesn’t play the same gritty, ultra-physical style favored by Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon’s teams, but then again, no one does anymore. College basketball is a different game than it was 15-20 years ago; it’s more free-flowing, more about athleticism in space, and more about shooting. What this team does that is exactly like the best teams Dixon and Howland coached is play unselfish, team-oriented basketball.
Capel has said that’s one of his favorite things about this particular group, and it has to be gratifying for him to see a team comprised mostly of newcomers gel to this degree, particularly because of the way that his early Pitt teams ― the ones anchored by Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, Au’Diese Toney and Justin Champagnie ― disintegrated due to infighting.
Like just about everyone else, I assumed Capel was in a lame-duck year, coaching out the string. His buyout drops significantly next year, and it seemed the prohibitive price tag associated with firing him was the only thing keeping him around. To his enormous credit, he has brought together a team comprised mostly of new faces, and turned them into a winner.
Pitt has more work to do, to be sure. The Panthers still aren’t ranked, though they picked up nine votes in the most recent Associated Press poll, their highest total so far this year, and they’re currently projected as one of the “last four in” by Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s resident bracket expert.
That said, of their nine remaining games, seven seem eminently winnable. Only their next clash, in Chapel Hill against North Carolina, and a season-ending date with Miami in south Florida stand as truly tough tests. They’ll get a chance to avenge a bad loss to Florida State, and have home dates with Georgia Tech and Louisville, two absolutely putrid teams who are a combined 1-20 in conference play.
Long story short, the opportunity is there. If Pitt wins the games it should win, 21 or 22 wins, and 14 or 15 conference wins is not out of the question. That would make them a near-lock to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016. They’ll be a low seed if they do get there, likely somewhere in the 8 to 11 range, but I wouldn’t particularly want to see them if I were a contender.
They can shoot, they’re experienced, they share the ball and did I mention they can shoot? They’re also pretty clearly a team that’s getting better as the season goes on. Sure, they’re capable of losing to anyone on any given night, but far more importantly, they’ve proven they can beat just about anyone.
I’m not sure if it will last past this season, but that hardly matters at this point. It came out of nowhere, and it still seems hard to believe, but Pitt basketball is good again.
This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Mueller: Back from the dead, Pitt basketball is fun - and good