What We (Think) We Know About Pitt Basketball Through 3 Games

By Dylan Mitchell, Capel Faithful

Year 3 of the Jeff Capel-era at Pitt tipped off with an absolute disaster of a loss to St. Francis (PA). There were a lot of reasons to be excited about this season, even though most were never entirely sure we would get to play due to the pandemic. Another year of experience for the nucleus of this young team, a few promising transfers, and the 27th-ranked recruiting class in the country (via 24/7 Sports) were all reasons to believe that this could be the year that this program turned the corner and broke into the NCAA Tournament. Then they let us down. In the very… first… game. Since that game, the Panthers have bounced back with two wins over Drexel and Northern Illinois. Although it is still very early, some things are beginning to become a little more clear about what we can expect from the 2020 Pitt Panthers.

Pitt Goes as X Goes

Xavier Johnson burst onto the ACC scene as a true freshman averaging 15.5 PTS/4.5 AST/3.9 REB. Johnson showed so much promise that his name started to come up in some NBA Draft discussions. If he were able to replicate his fantastic ACC All-Freshman season, there was a legitimate chance that he could declare for the NBA after his sophomore season. For better or for worse, Johnson was not able to live up to the lofty expectations that were placed upon him and had a bit of a sophomore slump, averaging 11.7 PTS/4.9 AST/3.7 REB and shooting just 37.3% from the floor. As is the case with many teams at any level of basketball, when the point guard struggles, so does the team. That has never been more apparent with Johnson and the Panthers than early this season. In the loss to St. Francis (PA), Johnson got into some early foul trouble, had seven of the team’s 23 turnovers, and shot 2-of-9 from the field, including 0-5 from 3-point range. In turn, the team struggled to ever build any momentum and never even got within striking distance of the Red Flash. In the two games since, Johnson has been a completely different player. X was brilliant against Drexel, posting a stat line of 27/8/6 on 9-for-13 shooting while committing just three turnovers. In the Northern Illinois game, he posted 15 points and seven assists, but most importantly, ZERO turnovers. If X can take care of the basketball and continue to be an effective distributor (averaging 8.3 AST thus far), the Panthers have a chance to have some real success in ACC play. If his performance looks anything like the one he had in the season-opener, we are in for another long season.

The Big Three…. and then everyone else

With all of the newcomers between the incoming transfers and the 2020 recruiting class, it was easy to get enamored with what the fresh faces could bring to the program. However, it is the three returning starters who are very clearly the three best players on this team. We already know the importance of Xavier Johnson’s play in ultimately determining what kind of season Pitt will have, but Au’Diese Toney and Justin Champagnie are the other two guys who they will need to lean on to win in the ACC. Toney is the Panthers’ best defensive player and is shooting 43% from three-point range thus far. He has also served as a much needed secondary decision maker in the offense, averaging 4.0 AST/G. Champagnie was snubbed from the ACC All-Freshman team last season after averaging 12.7 PTS and 7.0 REB. He was the leading scorer and leading rebounder on last year’s squad, and nothing we’ve seen so far indicates he can’t replicate that.

All of this is great if these three can continue to produce like they have early in the season. The problem is that the Panthers will need someone else to step up on nights when one or two of them are not on their ‘A’ game. So far, only one player outside of the “Big Three” has scored in double digits in a game this season. That was Ithiel Horton’s 15-point outing against Northern Illinois on Saturday. If Horton can continue to knock down shots at a respectable rate then he will be a huge lift to this offense, but it would be naive to think he is going to shoot 50% from 3 for the rest of the season like he did against NIU. Karim Coulibaly has been serviceable in the minutes he has received. Will Jeffress has shown some real flashes of what kind of player he may become. Nike Sibande is still ineligible, but the NCAA is voting on granting a blanket waiver to all transfers within the next week. Could he be the spark Pitt needs? Maybe, but Pitt needs some other guys to step up consistently if they want to have any chance of playing their way into the NCAA Tournament in March.

The young guys are going to be very good, but be patient

College basketball has come a long way since the days when freshmen were not eligible to play on the varsity squad. Guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Lew Alcindor were confined to playing for the freshman teams at their respective universities. Nowadays, teams like Kentucky and Duke load up on high school All-Americans, make a run in March, and ship a few guys off to the NBA just to reload with a few more freshmen the next year. Although this is reality for a few of the blue-blood programs in college basketball, this is not a realistic representation of what most freshmen really are.

Pitt brought in a loaded recruiting class highlighted by 4-star big John Hugley from Ohio and 4-star wing Will Jeffress from Erie. These are the two guys from the class who were expected to make the biggest impact early on, and they are the two who have seen the most minutes thus far. Although there hasn’t been a TON of production there, both have shown flashes of what they can bring to this program. Hugley looks very comfortable on offense both in the post as well as stepping out and shooting it. Jeffress’ statline is not going to blow anyone away (3.3 PTS, 1.7 REB, 0.7 AST), but he has been very solid defensively and has made a few impressive plays in transition. Not to mention, he is still only 17 years old.  Conversely, I am sure there are a lot of fans who heard the hype surrounding them and expected much more. At some point they will, but we need to be patient. These are not the no-brainer NBA lottery picks that filter through Kentucky every year and they never were going to be. 

Tonight, the Panthers travel to Evanston, Illinois, to take on Northwestern in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Pitt is a slight underdog in their first matchup against a Power Five school this season. A win tonight could help the Panthers build some momentum with ACC play starting a week from now. With a loss, the Panthers will be 2-2 and will need a win against Gardner-Webb on Saturday to avoid going into conference play with a losing record.

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