It’s tough to lose a home game when every contest is critical for both ACC tournament seeding and a potential NCAA bid. But when you convert free throws at a 40% clip and your opponent makes 90% of theirs, well a defeat is all but bound to happen. And that’s how the Pack lost to the Pitt Panthers, 67-64, Wednesday night.

State hit just 6-15 free throws in the game, while Pitt went 18-20 from the line. And everything else was just secondary. How bad was it? State trailed by three with Michael O’Connell at the line and three seconds left in the game. O’Connell is one of their best free throw shooters. And he missed the first one. Incredibly, State had one last shot, as after O’Connell missed the second one on purpose, the ball bounced around and into the arms of Casey Morsell, who heaved one towards the basket as time expired.

DJ Horne went 4-5 from the line, meaning the rest of the team went 2-10 from the charity stripe. That’s just pitiful.

We can talk about how State was outrebounded by nine or how they got destroyed in fast break points by a 16-4 margin. But the bottom line is you just can’t miss 60% of your free throws.

Three players finished with a positive number in plus/minus – DJ Burns finished with a +8, while Mo Diarra and Breon Pass both notched a +4. It was especially noteworthy with Pass, as he played just three minutes in the game, all in the second half to give Horne a quick blow. Somehow, coach Kevin Keatts hasn’t figured out that State plays best when Diarra is on the floor, game after game. He played just 16 minutes.

Horne was the Pack’s top scorer for the third straight game, as he led all players with 25 points. Burns added a season-high 19 points. But two guys who’ve been solid for State most of the year both had poor games. Ben Middlebrooks had a -11 in 19 minutes and went just 1-5 from the free throw line. And O’Connell had a -9 in the game and was taken advantage of on the defensive side of things.

Also, not much help came from starters Morsell and Jayden Taylor, who went a combined 2-10 in 61 minutes on the court. It’s a tough choice for Keatts, as those two are both good defensive players. But they can’t both be on the floor at the same time when neither of their shots are falling. Morsell played 37 minutes in the game. He’s simply on the floor too much.

Keatts loves to play a small lineup but the team gets beat up on the boards when he does. It’s a tradeoff that works if the guards hit their shots. But three of the four main guards came up … short in this game. As stated, numerous times in this space, the Pack needs to play two of their three bigs on the floor for more minutes than they do currently. Burns, Diarra and Middlebrooks combined for 56 minutes, meaning that they went with a smaller lineup for 24 minutes. That doesn’t seem like a ton. But it’s enough to put the team in a hole. State was down by nine points when Diarra checked in the game at the 10:02 point of the first half. They tied the game at 30-30 before missing their final three shots of the half, to go along with two turnovers, which led to an eight-point deficit at the half. And this happens on a regular basis. Lather, rinse, repeat.

For the next game, my plan is to count the plus/minus for when State plays two of Burns, Diarra and Middlebrooks at the same time. My guess is that number will be positive, regardless of what the final score turns out to be. Those three need to play more minutes while Morsell, Taylor and Dennis Parker Jr. need to log fewer minutes. That latter trio was on the floor for 74 minutes.

Burns played 21 minutes in this contest and had one of his best games of the year. That 20-25 minute range is the sweet spot for him. Diarra and Middlebrooks should play at least as much as Burns and potentially significantly more if the other team utilizes big lineups

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