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Pittsburgh at Clemson Basketball Preview: Q&A with Panther-Lair

Clemson prepares for their first of two basketball games against Pittsburgh. To preview the game, we synced up with Jim Hammett of Panther Lair.

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Hammett has joined for football Q&As, but this time he joins us to shed some light on the somewhat resurgent Panther basketball program that heads to Clemson on Tuesday at 9pm (ESPNU). You can follow him on Twitter here.

STS: Last year Pittsburgh finished ranked 227th (KenPom) with only eight wins. The offense was the main culprit, but the defense was poor as well. The Panthers moved on from Coach Kevin Stallings and hired Duke assistant Jeff Capel (formerly the head coach at VCU and OU). While Pittsburgh is far from “back,” things have turned around rather quickly. What have been some of the biggest changes philosophically and in execution?

Jim: I think there are a few things that have changed quickly from Kevin Stallings to Jeff Capel. First off, there is a winning mindset around the program that just was not there last season. The Kevin Stallings era was a really a black eye for the program. The fan base never really believed in the guy, he was not recruiting at an acceptable level for the ACC, and the team was just not competitive. Capel often uses the term, “building winning habits” and he really stresses that to his team: giving for looses balls, hustling, making foul shots - the typical things head coaches want. He’s from the coaching tree of Mike Kryzewzki, so most of the stuff Duke does are things he is trying to do at Pitt.

Secondly, I think from a stylistic standpoint, Pitt is more defensive oriented than it was under Stallings. Pitt really gets up and defends teams with tough man-to-man defense. Capel is not afraid to mix it up and throw in some zone or a press as well. Pitt is just simply better and more active defensively this season.

Last of all, it comes down to talent. You can talk about “building winning habits” all you want, but Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson have been two of the best freshmen in the ACC this season. Capel is known as a recruiter, and he landed both players along with Au’Diese Toney in a short amount of time last season. These kids aren’t the typical five-stars Capel landed at Duke, but they are pretty good players. Pair those three with graduate transfer Sidy N’dir, and there is just an influx of talent that has really sped up the rebuilding process.

STS: Coach Capel is known for his recruiting, but only one of his recruiting classes on the team so far. Nevertheless, the Panthers are relying on several freshmen for major contributions, none more notable than leading scorer Xavier Johnson. Can you tell us a bit about him?

Jim: Xavier Johnson was all set to go to Nebraska, but an assistant coach left the Cornhuskers’ program and he was looking for a home right around the time Jeff Capel was hired at Pitt. Johnson, a three-star recruit, was the Player of the Year in the WCAC (Washington D.C. Catholic league) and looked to be one of the top options available and the two parties connected rather quickly.

Expectations for Johnson weren’t overly high upon his arrival on campus, but he generated a buzz right away and has quickly become one of the best freshmen in the country. Johnson is very strong off the bounce and can get to the rim almost at will. He has a bit of a funky outside shot, but he’s been fairly effective as he is hitting 39% of his 3-pointers. He’s also a reliable free-throw shooter, hitting 82% from there, and he gets to the line quite a bit given his driving ability. Johnson averages 4.4 assists per game, which is good for fourth in the ACC right now.

Johnson turns the ball over a lot. Part of that is not having a reliable big man, and part of it is being a freshmen and playing out of control at times. I think Capel is fine with it, because by next year and beyond he will be a better player by playing through his mistakes.

STS: Center Terrell Brown is averaging just 6.1 ppg, but is 8th nationally in block rate and his biggest task in this one will be slowing down Eli Thomas who has emerged as maybe the Tigers best player. What do you expect out of this battle in the post?

Jim: Terrell Brown came to Pitt last year as a lanky kid that probably needed a redshirt, but was pressed into action due to Pitt’s lack of depth. He was inconsistent and lacked the necessary strength on the interior to be a real factor in the ACC. He did however score 19 points against Clemson and Thomas last season.

Brown has a good offensive touch when he gets the ball, and with his 7’3” wingspan he can get rebounds and has turned himself in a pretty good shot-blocker. He is still inconsistent and not very strong, but Capel and his staff have really gotten a lot out of him this season, and he should only get better moving forward for this program.

So having said all that, it’s hard to say what Brown can do in this matchup, because the inconsistency is still a big part of his game. In Pitt’s win over Louisville on January 9th, Brown scored 11 points, grabbed five rebounds, and blocked five shots. In Pitt’s loss to Louisville on Saturday, he went scoreless with four rebounds, and two blocked shots in 18 minutes of action due to foul trouble. So that pretty much sums up Terrell Brown right now, you just never know how he will come to play on a given night.

STS: Clemson has really struggled to score from three and defend the three. In fact, they didn’t make a single three-pointer in their loss at Raleigh on Tuesday and had they defended the three better down the stretch they would have won. Is Pittsburgh equipped to take advantage of Clemson’s weakness defending the three?

Jim: In short, no. Pitt does not have very many threats to take 3-pointers. Pitt’s strength overall is the driving ability of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens. Both players can make open 3’s, but it’s not their first thought on a basketball court.

Pitt’s only real threat as a 3-point specialist is senior wing Jared Wilson-Frame. He has attempted 184 shots this season, and 123 of those have come from behind the arc, so he is the only player on the team that really hunts for shots on the outside. Wilson-Frame hits 3-pointers at a 37% clip, and his 36 made 3-pointers is good for sixth in the ACC.

Pitt has two players on the bench that shoot a respectable percentage, but neither takes a high volume of 3-pointers. Sidy N’dir has connected on 10 3’s, while Davis has made 9. So in conclusion, Pitt is a team that thrives on driving the ball, but Clemson should still know where Wilson-Frame is at all times.

STS: On Saturday, Clemson fought back from a 49-41 deficit with under 11 minutes at NC State to go to earn a 5-point advantage with under a minute to go. After four straight missed field goals, they lost on a buzzer beater. Following last year’s Sweet 16 run, a tournament berth was the goal and expectation. Now it feels like their back is against the wall and they need to win about four in a row to give themselves any shot. Times are desperate.

Pittsburgh had a second half lead at Louisville before the talented Cardinals pulled away, but improvement from last season is obvious. At 2-5, is there a feeling that this is a must win game for Pitt, or is the visible progress and upward trajectory building optimism around the program? What’s the feeling around this program right now?

Jim: I think following wins of Louisville and Florida State along with a narrow loss to N.C. State, the talk of being on the bubble started for Pitt. Once bubble talk starts, it never really goes away from a fanbase until it’s clear there is no chance of making the tournament. So even with some recent losses, I think fans are holding out slight hope the Panthers can scrap together a few more wins down the stretch and get to 8-10 or 9-9 in the ACC.

If the team comes up short, nobody will hold it against Capel or the players. Pitt went 0-18 in league play last season and was picked last again this season. Nobody really expected a whole lot of this team, so any ACC win is almost gravy. Having said that, the taste of beating Louisville and Florida State invigorated Pitt fans, so there’s hope amongst the team and fans, but not so much of an expectation just yet.

For the people counting seven more wins, splitting with or sweeping Clemson is likely included. Pitt went through a tough stretch to open the year, but the back end is a little bit more forgiving so there might be a few wins left on the schedule. As for myself, I think the team comes up short in terms of getting to the NCAA Tournament, but the fact that it is even being discussed in year one of Capel is nothing short of amazing. So I wouldn’t say “must-win” but if the impossible does happen on Selection Sunday, this game would likely look better as a win.

STS: Pittsburgh is 10-3 at home and only 0-5 on the road. As such, it’s no surprise KenPom gives the Tigers a 69% chance to win. With a 9pm Tuesday tipoff for a team that’s sitting at 1-5 on the heels of the football team’s national championship, I wouldn’t expect a raucous environment though. How big of a factor, if at all, do you think being away from Pittsburgh is for this game? Do you like their chances of getting a road win in Clemson?

Jim: Pitt has two wins away from the Petersen Events Center this year. The first one was against Saint Louis in a near-empty Barclays Center in Brooklyn the day before Thanksgiving. The second was at the PPG Paints Arena in downtown Pittsburgh against city-rival Duquesne. While PPG is effectively on Duquesne’s campus, most of the 12,000 fans that took in that game were there to cheer on Pitt. So neither game was exactly a tough environment.

Pitt has played some good teams on the road, and it has also battled in many of the team’s road games to this point. I think the team is capable of winning a road game, but it still needs to prove it. Of Pitt’s road losses, they have walked into some tough environments: Syracuse, Louisville, N.C. State, Iowa, and West Virginia. So, those are tough places to win. If Clemson isn’t going to be too crazy, it could help Pitt, because the five road losses were in loud, sold-out arenas.

STS: A big thank you to Jim for joining us. Be sure to give him a follow on Twitter and watch the Tigers in action on Tuesday on ESPNU.