No. 1 Louisville Cardinals (8-0, 1-0) vs. Pittsburgh Panthers (7-2, 1-0)
Game Time: 9:05 p.m.
Location: KFC Yum Center: Louisville, Ky.
Television: ACC Network
Announcers: Mike Monaco (play-by-play) and Malcolm Huckaby (analyst)
Officials: Mike Eades, Ted Valentine, A.J. Desai
Favorite: Louisville by 12
Series: Louisville leads 17-6
Last Meeting: Louisville won 66-51 on Jan. 26, 2019 in Louisville
Probable Starting Lineups:
Kenny got super specific about Justin Champagnie’s scoring average for some reason. Eric Hamilton has never touched a rebound.
Pittsburgh’s Season to Date:
In its second season under head coach Jeff Capel, Pitt continues to show signs of moving back to the place of relative prominence that fans of the program expect it to be. The Panthers enter Friday night’s tussle with Louisville already owning quality wins over Florida State and Kansas State, as well as a pair of other Power Five wins over Northwestern and Rutgers. The lone losses for Pitt came at the hands of West Virginia (68-53) and a less understandable home loss to Nicholls (75-70).
As they were a year ago, Pitt is driven by the backcourt duo of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens.
Johnson was a monster for Capel in his freshman season, breaking the school’s 34-year-old freshman scoring record and establishing himself as the only player in Division I to average at least 15.5 points and 4.5 assists per game. He achieved those offensive numbers despite often being asked to defend the opposition’s best player on the other end of the floor.
Johnson’s scoring average (11.7 ppg) is down by nearly a full 4 ppg this season, which is more the product of him being surrounded by more help than he was a year ago than it is anything else. His shooting percentage of 40.4 percent is nearly identical to 2018-19, and his three-point percentage (39.3 percent) is actually up four points from last season. Johnson has also produced improved numbers in both rebounding (3.9 to 4.3) and, more importantly for the point guard, assists (4.5 to 5.2) from last season to this one. After a dismal eight turnover, zero assist game against Kansas State, Johnson has dished out eight assists in each of Pitt’s last two games. He is currently one of just three players in the ACC (joined by Elijah Hughes of Syracuse and Markell Johnson of NC State) averaging at least 10.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game.
I have 33 clips from the game last night, none more aesthetically pleasing in your TL than this one. pic.twitter.com/Jd6DRTfq8e— Stephen Gertz (@Stephen_Gertz) December 4, 2019
The previously mentioned turnovers are an issue for Johnson though. After averaging a far too high 4.0 turnovers per game as a freshman, Johnson is almost right at the mark (3.9 tpg) through eight games this season. Louisville’s defense isn’t designed to turn opponents over at a high rate, but Chris Mack has made comments over the last couple of weeks about “turning Darius Perry loose” and allowing him to apply more ball pressure. Don’t be surprised if that’s something you see tonight in a matchup of point guards where Perry is surrendering a full three inches.
The Panther guard that Louisville fans may remember more is McGowens, who set a Pitt freshman scoring record when he dropped 33 points on the Cards in an 89-86 upset win last January. That performance represented the highest point of a bipolar freshman year for McGowens. He scored 24 points or more four times, but was also held to single-digits in scoring in 10 of Pitt’s final 14 games.
McGowens has been a more consistent performer so far as a sophomore, and enters Friday as Pitt’s leading scorer (12.0 ppg). He remains a drive-first guard with an inconsistent outside shot (27.6 percent from three). Like Johnson, he turns the ball over too much (3.2 tpg), an issue which might not be magnified against a Louisville defense that doesn’t look to create turnovers. He has made up for those giveaways this season by coming up with a team-high 15 steals.
Trey McGowens has really flashed his upside (this season and beyond) since his game at RMU.— Stephen Gertz (@Stephen_Gertz) November 19, 2019
If he starts hitting 3-pointers off the bounce with some consistency, it's a whole different team. pic.twitter.com/0vngSfjgbD
The issue for Louisville when it comes to defending this backcourt is the same as it was a year ago. Johnson and McGowens are big (6’3 and 6’4). Darius Perry, Ryan McMahon and Fresh Kimble are not big. That feels especially unfair coming off a game against a Michigan backcourt that went 6’0, 6’0, 6’1. Don’t be surprised if David Johnson gets some extended run early. If he proves to be effective, Mack could choose to amp up his role in the second half.
The difference with Pitt this year is that there are two other guards that Louisville needs to be concerned with.
Junior Ryan Murphy, who began his college career at Charlotte before transferring to New Mexico Junior College, is an outside specialist who shores up a three-point shooting attack that was hit or miss for the Panthers a year ago. He’s knocked down 16 threes this season and his hit at least one in every Pitt game but two. Murphy is an ok scorer inside the arc, but he’s more dangerous as a passing threat when he’s on the dribble. Standing at 6’2, this would seem like the assignment Ryan McMahon will draw.
The other Pitt guard who has to be talked about is freshman Justin Champagnie. The 6’6 native of Brooklyn ranks seventh among ACC freshmen in scoring at 10.9 points per game and fourth in rebounds at 5.7 rebounds per game. He has scored in double figures six times and has grabbed five or more rebounds in each of the past seven games. Champagnie is shooting just 16.7 percent from three this season, and has been hesitant to take the deep shot unless he’s left wide open. The one exception is a bizarre outlier against Northwestern where he hoisted 11 triples. Expect whoever is defending Champagnie (Sutton/Nwora/Williamson) to leave him open on the perimeter in order to help out when Johnson and McGowens are making moves to the basket.
This quartet of guards is combining for 46.5 points per game and 70.6 percent (418-of-592) of Pitt’s scoring. Forwards Eric Hamilton (6.0 ppg/5.2 rpg) and Terrell Brown (5.8 ppg/3.6 rpg) are both serviceable players, but the recipe for beating the Panthers is fairly straightforward: Don’t let the guards kill you with drives to the basket. They want to score at the rim, they want to get to the free-throw line, and they want to get the opposing guards/wings in foul trouble.
Defensively, Pitt comes into this game a solid 54th in Ken Pom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. They’ll play both zone and man, and have applied extended pressure from time to time based on the situation. They force a decent amount of turnovers, are terrific at defending shots inside the arc (24th-best in the country), and don’t allow opponents to kill them at the free-throw line. Where they struggle is perimeter defense (209th-best against the three) and on the defensive glass. The Panthers are 308th out of 353 D-I teams when it comes to keeping their opponents off the offensive glass, news which should have Steven Enoch and Dwayne Sutton foaming at the mouth.
While the size of Pitt’s guards should provide some issues for guys like McMahon, Perry and Kimble, this feels like yet another team without a solid matchup for Jordan Nwora. Enoch also has a decided advantage against anyone they try to throw on him inside. These two have the potential to shoulder the scoring load for the Cardinals for the second time this week.
As for pace, once again, Louisville will be going up against one of the slower teams in the country. The Panthers rank 331st in the country in tempo, and really only look to get out in transition off of live ball turnovers.
—Louisville is 8-0 to start a season for the first time since 2014-15. The Cards won their first 11 games of that year. It’s the 11th-time in program history that U of L has started a season 8-0.
—Louisville hasn’t won its first two games of conference play since the 2015-16 season.
—Pitt has lost 21 consecutive ACC road games. Their last road win in conference play came on Feb. 8, 2017 when they knocked off Boston College.
—Louisville is seventh in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.350) 18th in field goal percentage (.499) and is ninth in scoring margin (+19.8).
—Louisville has won its first home conference game in six of the last seven years. The lone loss came at the hands of Virginia (61-53) on Dec. 28, 2016.
—Pitt is 2-17 all-time against the No. 1 team in the Associated Press Poll. The Panthers have dropped their past four games against the No. 1 team in the poll since defeating top-ranked Connecticut twice during the 2008-09 season.
—During that same 2008-09 season, Louisville defeated Pittsburgh when the Panthers were ranked No. 1 in the AP poll.
—Jordan Nwora’s 175 points scored this year is the most by a Louisville player through eight games over the last 20 seasons. He ranks second in the ACC in scoring at 21.9 ppg (18th in the nation).
—Pitt has lost 18 consecutive road games against ranked opponents. Their last win away from home against a top 25 team came on Feb. 9, 2013 at Cincinnati.
—Pitt is 6-0 this year and 13-0 under Jeff Capel when holding the opposition to 60 points or fewer.
—Pitt ranks second in the ACC in scoring defense at 58.9 points per game.
—Louisville has won 13 of its last 14 games against Pitt. The Cards’ 89-86 overtime loss last January snapped a 12-game winning streak against the Panthers.
—Louisville has on nine consecutive home games against Pitt. The Panthers have never won inside the KFC Yum Center, and last beat the Cardinals in Louisville all the way back on Jan. 15, 2006.
—Louisville is the only undefeated team remaining in the ACC and one of just 16 unbeaten teams remaining in Division-I.
—Pitt hasn’t started ACC play 2-0 since the 2015-16 season.
—Louisville is 20-3 all-time in games played on Dec. 6.
—Louisville has won 151 consecutive games when scoring at least 85 points in regulation.
—Louisville is one of just four schools which have won 20 or more games on the court in each of the last 18 seasons (also Kansas, Duke and Gonzaga).
Ken Pomeroy Prediction: Louisville 69, Pittsburgh 55