lair – The 3-2-1 Column: A big win, Xavier Johnson, Signing Day and more


In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re thinking about a nice bounce-back win, Xavier Johnson, the Big East, Signing Day and more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Back in the saddleSometimes we overthink things.

If a team is good, and then it’s not good, the answer to getting back to being good is pretty simple:

Do the things you were doing when you were good.

Well, that’s what Pitt did on Wednesday night. Fresh off a three-game losing streak where the Panthers looked progressively worse each time they took the court, Pitt walked into its home arena on Wednesday night to host No. 16 Virginia Tech.

I don’t think many people expected the Panthers to win – which, of course, is what they did – because I don’t think many people expected the Panthers to suddenly pull themselves out of their tailspin, a downward spiral known best for its uninspired play and overall lack of urgency, effort and energy.

Put another way, the three-game losing streak was defined, in large part, by the Panthers not doing the things they had done earlier in the season.

If I had to name those things, I would point specifically to defense and rebounding. But in broader terms, I would point to some of the elements I just mentioned: Urgency. Effort. Energy. I’ve talked about them a lot in the last two weeks because Jeff Capel has talked about them a lot in the last two weeks, and when Pitt got stunned by Notre Dame a week ago, it was the lack of urgency, the lack of energy, that seemed to bother Capel the most.

I can understand why. All of those clichés about how athletes can’t really control how tall they are or how fast they are or what-have-you, but they can control their attitude and their effort – those clichés get repeated so often because they are true. To have your team come out and play listless and uninspired – I can’t imagine anything more frustrating for a coach.

And that’s what Pitt did at Wake Forest and against North Carolina and Notre Dame. It earned its three-game losing streak by playing like it didn’t care.

On Wednesday night, facing one of the best teams they’ve seen all season, the Panthers looked like they cared again. Or, as Panther-Lair.com analyst Stephen Gertz said after the game, the Panthers enjoyed playing basketball and it showed.

Sometimes the simplest answer really is the right answer. After the stunner loss to St. Francis, Pitt’s early-season success was defined by some traits that reminded us of the good old days: defense, rebounding, toughness and physical play. During Wednesday night’s game, I made a note that the Panthers hadn’t been the more physical team since the win over Duke (and maybe just the first half of that game). But they were the more physical team against Virginia Tech, and just like in the Duke game, Pitt took the fight to the Hokies.

I think that’s big for this program. They have to take the fight to the opponent. They’re not going to be the most talented team in the conference, but they’re talented enough to be productive on offense, and they can put themselves over the top on most nights by rebounding, playing tough on defense and being the aggressor.

Now, after 14 games, I think we’ve seen enough to say comfortably that if Pitt comes out and plays with a sense of purpose, it can hang with just about anybody in the conference. The Panthers might not always win, and this Saturday’s just-scheduled game at Virginia will put the notion to the test, but they can compete with anybody. They just have to turn it on for 40 minutes.

That’s not as easy as it sounds, but I think they’ve done it enough over the course of the season to show that they’re capable. Capel said it a few times after the win on Wednesday night:

“We looked like the team we’ve been the majority of the season.”

I agree with Capel, and because of that, I think Wednesday night shouldn’t be an isolated incident.

A nice reminderI was reminded of something on Wednesday night.

I was reminded how fun it can be to watch Xavier Johnson when he’s playing at a high level.

Wednesday was about as good as Johnson has been since he got to Pitt: a career-high 32 points, 11-of-17 shooting, 4-of-7 from three, 7 assists and 5 rebounds. And somehow, watching Johnson was even better than the numbers indicate.

He was aggressive but controlled. He pulled the trigger often but found his teammates. He was physical but restrained with only two fouls (although he got close to drawing a technical foul for yelling at the referee). Most of all, he was an incredibly frustrating player for Virginia Tech to deal with, as he drew seven fouls and had two steals amidst all of his scoring and assisting.

It was fun to watch, partly because it’s always fun when a player is operating at a high level, but also because it has been awhile since we’ve seen that version of Johnson. It hasn’t happened much this season. He scored 27 against Drexel and 21 against Northwestern, but Drexel is Drexel and he shot 6-of-16 with just one two-point field goal to beat the Wildcats.

He had 23 in the win over Syracuse at the Petersen Events Center, but he only made four field goals on 12 shots, adding 13 points from the free throw line. And in the four games between Syracuse and Virginia Tech, Johnson shot 12-of-38 from the floor, 2-of-10 from three, committed 12 fouls and offset 29 assists with 15 turnovers.

The Notre Dame game was a low point. Johnson played 19 minutes and fouled out with five points, three assists and two turnovers. Jeff Capel responded to that performance by putting Johnson on the bench to start the Virginia Tech game, and while we’ll never really know how that impacted Johnson, he definitely used some version of the word “humbled” a lot when he spoke to the media after the game.

I don’t know if the benching made all the difference. Capel put Johnson on the bench when Pitt hosted Syracuse last February, and the results were not nearly as good: five points, five assists and three turnovers in 30 minutes.

So whether it was the benching or something else that inspired Johnson on Wednesday night, I couldn’t say. All I can say is that when Johnson is on, he’s incredibly fun to watch.

Leaving the Big EastEvery so often, we talk about the Big East, and for the most part, it’s sentimental and nostalgic.

“Remember the old Big East,” we’ll say. “Remember when it was a knockdown, drag-out affair every night, where guys were getting bloodied and it was like football and hockey had a baby with sneakers on.”

That’s kind of what it was, although I have just as many visions of Kevin Pittsnogle from outside and Kemba Walker driving and Notre Dame guys named Chris and all of those Marquette guards – remember all of those damn Marquette guards? – as I do of the bludgeoning, bang-until-they-call-it style of play.

Anyway, the old Big East was fun. No question about it. It was a blast to watch, and I’m sure our memories are as fond as they are because Pitt was pretty good back then. The old Big East had some great teams, and in the 2000’s, Pitt was one of the best. That was fun.

Sometimes those conversations about the old Big East inevitably turn to discussions about what has come of the teams who left the Big East in 2013. That topic came up this week when Zach Braziller of the New York Post wrote about the “disaster” that has befallen Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse since making the decision to jump ship for the ACC.

Never mind that Notre Dame has won at least 20 games in five of its seven seasons as a member of the ACC and won the conference tournament in 2015. Or that Syracuse has finished under .500 in conference play just once since joining the ACC. Or that Louisville also made that jump and the Cardinals have averaged 23.5 wins per season in six years as an ACC member and have finished in the top four of the conference four out of those six years.

Never mind those details. This is about how the Big East was great (it was), how it’s unfortunate that those teams left the league (it is) and how it has been a disaster ever since (it has been, at least for Pitt, but not in that way).

The thing with Pitt is, the move to the ACC didn’t precipitate a downfall; it coincided with it. Whatever you want to say about the Panthers’ time in the Big East, things were headed in a certain direction those last few years. In Pitt’s penultimate year in the conference, the Panthers won a championship – the CBI. The next year, Pitt got bounced from the NCAA Tournament in an 18-point loss to Wichita State.

In Pitt’s first in the ACC, the Panthers won their opening game of the NCAA Tournament, taking an 8/9 upset with a 29-point win over Colorado. That led to getting dropped by No. 1 seed Florida. The following two seasons saw Pitt suffer a pair of opening-round losses: first to George Washington in the NIT and then to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament for Dixon’s swan song.

If you’re scoring at home, that’s one NCAA Tournament win in Dixon’s final five seasons at Pitt. This is how a downfall starts.

The process was then brought to completion with the hiring of Kevin Stallings. And that, my friends, was the real disaster – not the move to the ACC.

If Pitt had stayed in the Big East, there’s no guarantee that Dixon would have righted the ship. And if he had still left for TCU and Pitt had hired Stallings, I don’t think the results would have been much different than they were.

Ultimately, we all know why Pitt (and Syracuse and Louisville) moved to the ACC: it was a money move motivated by football, the biggest money-maker of all. It was a move that had to be made, to the betterment or detriment of everything other than football TV money. And that’s fine: it’s college sports, and the primary motivation has never been much of a mystery.

But I’m not totally on board with painting Pitt hoops as a victim of that decision. Pitt has been on a downward slide in recent years; there’s no question about that. But it’s a slide that predates the move to the ACC.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Was this Narduzzi’s best class?I think we discussed this after the last Signing Day, but it seems relevant to bring up once again since the team rankings for the 2021 recruiting cycle are more or less set and we can take a bit more of a “finalized” view on things.

To that end, Pitt’s 2021 recruiting class checks in at No. 22 overall and No. 4 in the ACC. That stands as the highest the Panthers have been since Pat Narduzzi’s first full class in 2016.

To wit:

2020 – No. 44 overall, No. 8 ACC2019 – No. 49 overall, No. 10 ACC2018 – No. 36 overall, No. 8 ACC2017 – No 38 overall, No. 7 ACC2016 – No. 29 overall, No. 5 ACC

And what’s interesting about that 2016 class is that Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones were both two-star prospects; a rating that better reflected their future performances – I’d say a four-star ranking would be in order – would have added about 120 points on the Rivals rating scale, which would have moved Pitt’s class to No. 23 nationwide.

But I digress, because anybody can play the “If only the recruits were ranked after the fact” game, and for every two-star like Weaver or Jones who turned into an All-American, there were four-stars like Kaezon Pugh and Ruben Flowers who didn’t pan out.

So let’s get back to the point:

Is the class of 2021 Pat Narduzzi’s best class? The rankings say so, but what about the looks test, the old eyeball exam where we look at a class and say, “Yeah, that’s good” or “Eh, it’s pretty solid” – where does this class stack up in that regard?

Right off the top, it doesn’t have a ton of star power. The class of 2021 has three four-star recruits; that’s how many the classes of 2020 and 2017 had, while the class of 2016 had five (the classes of 2018 and 2019 had one each). So the class of 2021 doesn’t really stand out in that regard.

But if you set the stars aside, I think there’s a lot to like in the class, and a real case to make for it as Narduzzi’s best. When you start from the top, the first names that come to mind are Elliot Donald, Nahki Johnson and Dorien Ford; Donald and Johnson are both four-star prospects, and that trio represents the best class of WPIAL defensive linemen in a long time. From the very beginning of the 2021 recruiting cycle, it was clear that Donald, Johnson and Ford were potential crown jewels for Pitt, and that’s exactly how it played out when the Panthers pulled off a clean sweep.

As you work your way down the list, it doesn’t stop impressing. Terrence Rankl and Terrence Enos are high three-star offensive linemen, while Malik Newton would likely have finished his high school career as one of the best running backs in Tidewater history if he had been able to play his senior season.

The hits keep coming in the 5.6 three-stars (three-star prospects rate as 5.5, 5.6 or 5.7 on the Rivals scale). Rodney Hammond, Myles Alston and Jaden Bradley are talented offensive skill players, Phillip O’Brien was a late add to the class after he decommitted from Auburn and Khalil Anderson is one of the most criminally-underrated prospects to sign with Pitt in recent memory.

As you work through the class you keep finding more prospects with some pretty high ceilings. I’m personally of the mind that Central Valley safety Stephon Hall is going to be pretty good, and I think there are more like him.

But is it Narduzzi’s best class?

I have a hard time saying yes, if only because I think the class that came before the it, the class of 2020 that ranked No. 44 overall and No. 8 in the conference, was Narduzzi’s best. We’ve already seen Jordan Addison, we’ve seen flashes of Jaylon Barden and Dayon Hayes and we’ve gotten bits and pieces of guys like Rashad Battle, Solomon DeShields and Bangally Kamara, and it has all been really encouraging. I think that class is going to look loaded when we revisit it a few years from now, and I think those guys – and more from the 2020 class – will make a significant impact as soon as this season.

We’ll see what the 2021 class brings and we can debate 2020 vs. 2021, but I think there should be agreement on this:

With the last two classes, Pitt’s recruiting has taken a considerable step forward.

How important is Capel for Lyke?Sometimes a hire is not just a hire.

I was thinking about this as I recorded my podcast on Tuesday night this week. We were discussing Pitt basketball, of course, and we were discussing Jeff Capel and his time at Pitt. I don’t see him being in any sort of trouble or being on the hot seat or anything like that; I think when you inherit a team that went winless in conference play and then you have to essentially rebuild the roster from the ground up, you get a fair amount of latitude.

We can debate how long it should take to rebuild a basketball program. And we can debate how far along Capel is – and should be – in that process. But I don’t think there should be much disagreement about one thing: the importance of Capel actually executing the rebuild.

Not just for Capel and not just for Pitt. But for Heather Lyke.

Hiring Capel in March 2018 stands as Lyke’s most significant personnel move as Pitt’s Director of Athletics. It might be her most significant move overall. Sure, there’s the big-money project of Victory Heights, and there was the give-the-fans-what-they-want layup of the uniform redesign. But I’m not sure there’s any decision Lyke has made that surpasses the Capel hire in terms of significance and impact.

There are a lot of things an athletic director is supposed to do, and the vast majority of those things probably happens far from the public eye. But there are some very important roles that are very much under the scrutiny of the fans, and hiring coaches is at the top of the list.

More to the point, hiring a football coach and a men’s basketball coach. Those are the money-makers, at least at a school like Pitt, and those are the hires that an athletic director absolutely has to get right.

Lyke inherited Pat Narduzzi, of course; she has since given him an extension, which is significant in its own right, but it’s not the same as hiring a coach. That bridge is among the most crucial an athletic director can cross, and Lyke did it after a year on the job.

Her decision to part ways with Kevin Stallings was about as easy as it gets, and quite frankly, the decision to hire Capel probably wasn’t too tough either. Once he emerged as a realistic candidate – meaning, a candidate who was willing to take the Pitt job – Capel checked more than enough boxes.

Former head coach. Long-time assistant at one of the best programs in the country. Deep background in the ACC.

Capel was an ideal hire, and I think that probably made it easy for Lyke. But next comes part two, and that’s the important part:

Capel has to work out.

If the Capel hire was the most important move Lyke has made, then his success is crucial to her legacy at Pitt. I think Lyke wants to accomplish a lot here: I think she wants major facilities upgrades and an overall improvement in the sports outside of football and men’s basketball – she is fond of touting “comprehensive excellence” – but none of that will matter if Capel doesn’t elevate the basketball program.

There may be a point when the football program becomes a similar defining moment for Lyke, but it’s not quite there yet. With basketball, she made the hire; now she needs it to work out.

ONE PREDICTION

Signing Day is going to keep slippingHey, did you know Wednesday was Signing Day? You might have missed it, and you’d be forgiven if you did.

Pitt didn’t sign anybody on Wednesday, and that puts the Panthers in a group with just about everybody else in the country. There’s just not a lot available. If you look at the Rivals250 for the class of 2021, 234 of the top 250 prospects in the country signed in December.

That doesn’t leave much for the February Signing Day, and memories of the first Wednesday of the second month being one of the biggest days of the year keep fading faster and faster.

This has been developing for a few years now. The class of 2018 was the first one to get to experience a December Signing Day, so this current group is the fourth class to go through it. Each year, we’ve seen more and more of Pitt’s class get officially inked in December.

In the class of 2018, all but four of the 20 commits signed in December; Mychale Salahuddin, Habakkuk Baldonado, Erick Hallett and Kaymar Mimes all committed after the new year and signed in February.

A year later, Pitt only signed one recruit in February: SirVocea Dennis, a late addition to the class who more or less replaced Khadry Jackson, who flipped to North Carolina in December.

In last year’s class, Pitt had two February signings: kicker Ben Sauls, who the Panthers originally targeted as a walk-on who would get a scholarship the following year, and defensive back Rashad Battle, who took his recruitment into February after decommitting from Maryland in November.

This year, Pitt signed 21 recruits on Signing Day in December and then added Phillip O’Brien as a Christmas Day commitment; he technically would have signed in February, but he enrolled in January, so that’s done.

Think about that: seven total February signings in the last four classes. That’s wild. When the NCAA first instituted the December signing period, there were certainly plenty of people – myself included – who thought that early period would become the primary period. But I didn’t think it would get as extreme as it has.

To some extent, 2021 is unique. Recruits couldn’t take official visits and coaches couldn’t make in-home visits; that pulled a whole bunch of the drama out of the process, and recruits more or less picked a school and signed. Next year, I imagine more guys will hold out until February, but not many more.

Quite simply, the process has changed. Recruiting is always shifting, of course, but this move with Signing Day was the first major shift, really, since the advent of online recruiting coverage. Signing Day – in February – was always The Day. That was the holiday, the date circled on the calendar that the whole year revolved around.

Now, February is an afterthought. A handful of top guys picked their schools on Wednesday, but not many. December is the key date now, and it’s kind of unfortunate: when Signing Day was a big deal in February, it was a kind of beacon for college football. The season was more than a month in the past, and it gave the sport some headlines amidst college basketball and the run-up to or run-down from the Super Bowl.

Instead, Signing Day in December is kind of buried among bowl games and the College Football Playoffs and Christmas and the NFL in full swing. And if it’s not buried altogether, it stands out a lot less. It’s still a big deal, but with so many other big deals, it’s a little less of one.

As we’ve seen, though, that December date keeps growing in stature and February keeps shrinking. I don’t see that changing any time soon.



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