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Young, rebuilding Pitt faces busy stretch of games

No matter how much work needs done to mold Pitt basketball into a form Jeff Capel prefers, there isn’t a lot of time to do it. Starting Wednesday at Petersen Events Center, the opponents get tougher and start showing up without much of a break in between them.

Pitt (2-2) will play four games in 10 days. Vanderbilt (3-1), the guest on Wednesday, Minnesota (4-0) and Virginia (4-2) are from power conferences and the Cavaliers game in Charlottesville, Va., on Dec. 3 will be Pitt’s ACC opener. The Panthers also play Maryland, Baltimore County (3-2) on Saturday at the Pete.

All four teams have winning records, and UMBC doesn’t appear to be an easy mark — the Retrievers have scored 85, 91 and 98 points in their three victories.

Capel has been pleased with his young team’s progress during a two-game winning streak. While starting sophomores Will Jeffress, Femi Odukale and John Hugley, Pitt showed fight in surviving UNC Wilmington by eight points and Towson by four.

But another sophomore, 6-foot-8 Noah Collier, received plenty of praise from Capel, who benched Hugley in the second half of the Towson game after he recorded double-doubles in two of the first three.

“I thought Noah Collier was outstanding. which is why he played basically the whole second half,” Capel said. “We need his energy. We need his athleticism and he did that at a very high level.

”When I went back and watched it on tape, it stood out even more. It jumped off the screen, his energy. He played with force.”

And that was only a 20-minute appearance when he scored seven points and grabbed two rebounds. Capel appears eager to see what Collier can do with increased playing time.

Freshman Nate Santos played all but three minutes of the Towson game, scoring 14 points with eight rebounds. His ability to shoot beyond the 3-point arc has earned him a start in all four games, in part because he might be Pitt’s best long-range shooter. He has hit 6 of 17 (35.3%), the best percentage on a team that is ranked 341st among 350 teams across the nation (11 of 45, 24.4%).

”He had been overwhelmed at times,” Capel said. “But I think he’s grown from those experiences. He’s been thrust into his position (after Pitt lost veteran guards Nike Sibande and Ithiel Horton). I’m not saying he wasn’t ready for it, but it’s different than what we thought it would be and maybe even that he thought it would be.

“We knew he would play, but playing the amount of minutes, starting, it’s different from the role we thought he would have.”

Said Santos: “It was definitely a big weight off my shoulder to see that ball go through the net.”

Capel was impressed that Santos did more than score.

”His stuff jumped off the screen, too,” he said. “I thought it was the best defense he played and the best job he’s done with being physical.”

Meanwhile, the other area of the court that has challenged Pitt in its first four games is the place that offers no resistance — the free throw line. Pitt is averaging more than 25 attempts per game, but ranks 348th in the nation (57 of 103, 55.3%). Only Northwestern State and Sam Houston are worse.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at or via Twitter .

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