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The 3-2-1 Column: Hoops losses, football coaches and more

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In this week's 3-2-1 Column, we're thinking about Pitt's loss to Duke, the path forward, the recent football coaching hires and a lot more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Syracuse and Duke didn’t change anything
A week ago, I wrote in this column from a different perspective. Pitt had just knocked off Florida State for its second consecutive home win and looked very much like a team on the rise in the ACC. I wrote about how the Panthers had an outside shot at making the NCAA Tournament if they could cobble together 18 or 19 wins with a couple resume-builders in there.

Now, a week later, I’m writing again from the perspective of having witnessed back-to-back losses, but I have to say, I can’t say the opinion has changed all that much.

Pitt is currently 12-7 heading into Saturday’s rematch with Louisville. The Panthers have 12 games left, which means they need to go 6-6 to reach 18 wins in the regular season.

Six wins out of games against Louisville, Clemson, Syracuse, Wake Forest, N.C. State, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Clemson again, Virginia, Miami and Notre Dame.

Are there six wins in there? I thought there was a potential to get that number last week, and I have to admit: watching Pitt lose to Syracuse and Duke didn’t really change my mind on that one. The Panthers’ strengths are still strengths, and while the team’s weaknesses certainly haven’t gone anywhere, there are plenty of lighter opponents on that schedule - opponents that Pitt can beat.

Now, that’s not to totally dismiss the last two losses. When Syracuse has experienced players executing the 2-3 zone, it’s tough for a lot of teams to crack, particularly those who rely on penetration with little threat of outside shooting or interior offense. And when Duke has multiple lottery picks and a distinct size advantage, well, you see what happens.

Pitt won’t face anyone like Zion Williamson the rest of the way, but the Panthers are definitely going to see zone defenses, and that’s a problem. Other teams might not execute the zone as well as Syracuse did - or Duke, for that matter, since Mike Krzyzewski ditched the man defense to play zone on Tuesday night - but opposing coaches will drop into it because they know that Pitt’s biggest threats are Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens, who thrive with the drive.

In a way, it’s a testament to how good Johnson and McGowens have been that other coaches, even Hall-of-Famers like Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, have opted for a zone defense; they’ve recognized that Johnson and McGowens are not just Pitt’s primary threats, but they’re also dangerous enough to do serious damage if they get going.

Figuring out a way to score against the zone is Jeff Capel’s challenge. It’s not likely that the Panthers will suddenly develop a deadeye outside shot. It’s also not likely that any of Pitt’s post players are going to be zone-breakers anytime soon. The most likely scenario is that Johnson and McGowens get a little better as shooters, Jared Wilson-Frame gets a little more consistent outside, Au’Diese Toney finds his role in the middle of the zone and Terrell Brown gets just a little stronger on the glass.

Maybe that’s a lot to ask, but I’m not looking for huge improvements - just some minor steps forward. If that can happen, this team can survive against some of the teams left on the schedule.

There’s only so much you can do
I’ll be the first time admit that I’m like everyone else in this regard:

I love this Pitt team’s approach. The way they fight, the way they work, the way they’re not intimidated by any opponent, the way they won’t back down from anyone and the way they don’t seem to ever really give up - those are very endearing qualities. And, along with the standout individual play from Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens, those qualities are probably the biggest reason so many people are on board with this team and the future of this program.

But here’s the thing:

Effort and a fighting spirit can only get you so far. Being a plucky upstart can only accomplish so much. Eventually, you have to have the talent. Eventually, you need the star player or two. Eventually, you’ve simply got to be better than the other guy, not just willing to work harder.

You need that, too; you need to be willing to outwork your opponent whether you’re more talented or not. But at some point, it sure would help to be more talented, too. Pitt has that at some positions in some games; that needs to turn into “most positions in most games.”

Capel knows this, of course. He has coached on teams with high-level players. And he saw it from the other side in stark contrast Tuesday night. And when he was asked about Duke’s zone defense creating issues, he broke it down pretty simply.

“Look, they’re better than us,” Capel said. “I mean, they’re more talented than us. So I think that’s what it was. I don’t think it was just the zone; I think it was their talent and how good they are that won.”

Capel has been around plenty of top-shelf players. Blake Griffin is on his resume. So is Zion Williamson, for that matter. And there are a bunch of Capel recruits in between those two who have been getting paid to play basketball for years.

The overall talent difference was certainly on display against North Carolina, and it stood out even more against Duke. Not that Capel needed those games to know what he was up against; Pitt’s staff has been bracing for a season of “small ball” since they arrived and evaluated the roster.

But seeing Pitt line up next to Duke, seeing the size advantage of virtually every player in Mike Krzyzewski’s lineup, seeing Au’Diese Toney guard Williamson - all of it hammered the point home even more. Capel has done a lot of things right in his first year at Pitt, but he’ll be the first to tell you that personnel is the most important thing he needs to address.

And even as we talk about Capel redefining the culture of Pitt basketball, the reality is, that culture change is manifesting itself not on the bench but on the court. Johnson and McGowens are the change. Johnson and McGowens are the new culture. Give Capel lesser guards and the results might look more like last season than they currently do. So while the head coach gets - and deserves - a ton of credit, the real culture change is happening with the players.

Capel knows that. He knows that adding more talent to the lineup is really the way to make the culture change stick. They’ve got the effort and the fight; now they need the wins. And to get the wins, they need the talent.

That’s a good focus
Hopefully you got a chance to check out Josh Hammack’s excellent review of UMass film to get a better sense of what to expect from Mark Whipple as Pitt’s offensive coordinator. There’s a ton of info in there, but one thing that really stood out was Whipple’s emphasis on getting the ball to his best players.

For UMass last season, that meant senior receiver Andy Isabella. A small speedster, Isabella can be a slot receiver at the next level, and he was tremendously productive in 2018. He caught 102 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns; he carried the ball 11 times for 79 yards and a score; and he returned seven punts for 55 yards.

Isabella’s 14 touchdowns led UMass in scoring and his 1,777 yards of total offense amounted to 33.7% of the team’s gains. He was the Minutemen’s best player and Whipple made sure he got the ball early and often.

Compare that to Pitt in 2018, where the thinking along those lines was handing the ball off to Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall 347 times. Meanwhile, Maurice Ffrench was one of the team’s most dynamic playmakers, and he touched the ball just 54 times on offense - if you’re scoring at home, that’s less than four touches per game.

Now, Ffrench made the most of his touches. He scored eight offensive touchdowns; that’s roughly one every seven touches. He also returned 20 kicks and took two of those to the house, giving him 10 scores on the season. Ffrench finished with 1,224 all-purpose yards, or just 87.6 per game in a 14-game season. But on a per-play basis, the junior from New Jersey was good for 16.3 yards.

Isabella, by comparison, averaged 15.3 yards per play.

So it seems to me that if Whipple is going to come in and identify a key player or two that he will focus on, Ffrench is a good option who has been under-utilized in his career - a career that only has one year left, which is kind of crazy.

Taysir Mack should also be a focal point in the passing game; he made enough plays in 2018 to show that he is capable. I doubt that Ffrench and Mack will combine to match Isabella’s numbers, largely because Pitt’s offense in 2019 is not going to be a carbon copy of what UMass ran this past season. Whipple’s offense threw nearly 100 more passes than Shawn Watson’s did despite playing two fewer games, while Watson’s offense, as we all know, was far more dominant in and focused on the rushing attack.

I suspect things will be a bit more balanced this year between the run and the pass, but the Pitt offense will still be a run-heavy affair; that’s just part of the deal for Narduzzi. Even if they still focus on establishing the run, though, I think Whipple’s biggest influence and impact will be on getting the ball to Ffrench and Mack and Shocky Jacques-Louis and the playmakers Pitt does have in the passing game.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Is this Narduzzi’s best staff?
On the football side, Pat Narduzzi completed his coaching staff this week with the hiring of Chris Beatty as receivers coach. That follows last week’s hiring of Mark Whipple to serve as offensive coordinator, and Narduzzi now has his staff set for the 2019 season.

We’ll obviously judge these hires - who are Nos. 17 and 18 on the Narduzzi coaching tree at Pitt - after we see what happens in the season, but at the outset, it’s hard to find a lot to dislike. I wrote last week about Whipple really fitting what Narduzzi needed and wanted as an experienced play-caller; similarly, Beatty seems to check a lot of boxes, too.

Beatty has a nice wealth of experience with a decade or so at the Power Five level. He has done it on the field, too, and he has a reputation as a strong recruiter - basically the three things Narduzzi was probably looking for the most in his new receivers coach.

Really, if you look at Narduzzi’s hires over the last two years, there’s a lot to like. Prior to Whipple and Beatty, Narduzzi added Dave Borbely as offensive line coach, Randy Bates as defensive coordinator and Archie Collins and Cory Sanders to work with the secondary.

While Pitt’s offensive line wasn’t great in pass protection, Borbely gets a lot of credit for that unit’s performance in the run game. Bates is largely working with Narduzzi’s defense, but he seems to be developing some new things on that side of the ball. And Collins and Sanders have both been well-received by the players and by recruits.

There have been suggestions that this might be Narduzzi’s best staff since he got to Pitt, and I can’t say I necessarily disagree. The results, of course, will be the deciding factor, but I look at the current coaching roster and see experience, some strong recruiters and not too many qualities that are unfilled.

What I mean by that is, if you put together a list of the things you would like to see on a staff, this one has most of them. The term “ace recruiter” gets tossed around more than it needs to, in my opinion, mostly because I think there aren’t really all that many “ace recruiters” out there. But Pitt’s staff has some guys who do the job pretty well: Tim Salem works as hard as anyone in recruiting, and hard work is one of the biggest skills for a good recruiter; Charlie Partridge is great at forming personal relationships; I already mentioned Beatty’s reputation; and I think Collins will start landing some recruits from places Pitt hasn’t targeted as much. I also think Sanders is a smart, relatable guy, and Whipple has been around quarterbacks long enough, both as a coach and as a recruiter, that he should know how to talk to them effectively.

So I think that these last two hires have filled out the staff quite nicely. Now they need to get the results on the field.

What happened to the 2016 class?
In that earlier section where I was talking about playmakers and Maurice Ffrench, I threw in a line that kind of caught me by surprise.

Ffrench is a good option who has been under-utilized in his career - a career that only has one year left, which is kind of crazy.

One year left? That really is crazy. It seems like Ffrench just got here. I spent most of this season constantly reminding myself that he was not as young as I thought he was, that he was actually a junior playing his third season of college football.

Now, his first year was kind of a waste. He played in nine games in 2016 and touched the ball 12 times; that’s hardly a good use of a redshirt, and if the new four-game redshirt had been available, I imagine the coaches would have been more judicious with his playing time (even though he saw time at cornerback in two games at the end of the season due to the injuries at that position - a situation that would cost at least one other redshirt that year).

But for the last two years, Ffrench has had a significant, if underutilized, role. He got 34 touches on offense in 2017 - 25 receptions, nine rushing attempts - and then had as much of a breakout season as he could get this past year with those numbers I mentioned (75 touches, 1,224 all-purpose yards, 10 total touchdowns, 16.3 yards per touch).

Aside from a few drops (Pro Football Focus charged him with three on the season), the only real knock on Ffrench was how little he was used. Like I said earlier, he saw an average of less than four offensive touches per game; that’s not good enough.

But I digress. I’ve already talked about the impact I think Ffrench can make. This is about the 2016 class, of which Ffrench was a member. Because now those kids are entering their fourth years in the program, which means they will be seniors if they didn’t redshirt and redshirt juniors if they did.

Where does the time go? And what has become of that class?

There was a lot of hype for the group, as you’ll recall. That was Pat Narduzzi’s first full recruiting class, a 24-man group that saw Narduzzi have a lot of success locally, flip a couple Power Five commits and put together a class that created a lot of energy in the fanbase.

So where are they now? Well, we start with the number 24; there were 24 recruits in the class. 23 them made it to campus (offensive lineman Zack Williams had academic issues in his final semester of high school and had to go to a junior college).

21 made it to training camp after George Hill and Zack Gilbert were ruled out for medical reasons. By the offseason prior to the 2018 season, 15 were left; Henry Miller, Chawntez Moss, Kaezon Pugh, Ruben Flowers, Justin Morgan and Thomas MacVittie all left or were dismissed from the team.

Those 15 are still at Pitt. 11 of them will be redshirt juniors this season, as there were 4 who played as freshmen: Damar Hamlin, Aaron Mathews, Maurice Ffrench and Amir Watts.

Looking at that list, it’s hard to say that Pitt has gotten the most out of those four players in their three active seasons. Hamlin and Watts have a bunch of starts under their belts and Hamlin has been the most productive player from the 2016 class, but Ffrench and Mathews both could have used a redshirt (although Mathews did throw a huge block on James Conner’s 20-yard touchdown run at Clemson that season).

Entering this season, there are 8 players from that class that I would consider probable starters: Hamlin, Ffrench, Watts, Rashad Weaver, Patrick Jones, Keyshon Camp, Elias Reynolds and Bryce Hargrove (with Brandon Ford and Phil Campbell having an outside shot).

I haven’t run the numbers, but 8 players from a 24-man class starting in Year Four seems…low. You’d like to think that a class like that, which was expected to be foundational, would have built a healthier portion of the projected two-deep. Although maybe not; when I look back at the 2006 class - Dave Wannstedt’s first full class and one that provided a foundation - there aren’t more than seven or eight players who ended up starting on the 2009 team, so maybe the attrition and success rates are right in line.

Still, I think I expected a little more from that class. There’s time for the 15 players who are left to make a big impact in 2019 and 2020. We’ll see if they do it.

ONE PREDICTION

Au’Diese Toney will have a big game on Saturday
To some extent, I’m picking a name out of a hat here.

I mean, somebody other than Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens have to step up, right? Jared Wilson-Frame should be the shooting threat but he is just too inconsistent from outside. Terrell Brown has scored in double figures for three consecutive games now, but he still doesn’t look strong enough to be an offensive focus. And everyone else is eating minutes.

So how about Toney? It seems to me that he’s due. Most of his acclaim in the win over Louisville two weeks ago was in regards to his defensive performance, but he followed that with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting in a loss at N.C. State, and I think he’s ready for another one of those games after posting single-digits in each of the last three games.

Toney is the unsung freshman, overshadowed by Johnson’s double-figure scoring streak and McGowens’ pair of 30-point games. But he’s a very useful tool to have in the shed as the team’s best rebounder and a scrappy scorer. Opponents will continue to focus on Johnson and McGowens - especially Louisville, who gave up 33 to McGowens and 21 to Johnson at the Petersen Events Center - so someone else is going to need to produce.

I think Toney has a chance to emerge in this one as an outlet for Johnson and McGowens in penetration and with some second-chance points. He hit one of his seven shot attempts the last time Pitt faced Louisville and was an especially brutal 2-of-13 with Zion Williamson in his face Tuesday night.

But prior to facing Duke, Toney was holding steady as a 40% shooter. I think he’ll regain that form on Saturday afternoon and put in a solid performance, either giving Pitt a chance to win or keeping it close for the Panthers.

And if not, maybe McGowens will put up his third 30-point game of the season.