Pitt Basketball is Getting Fun Again
By Dylan Mitchell, Capel Faithful Guest Contributor
If you would have told me after the season opening loss to St. Francis (PA) that Pitt would be 8-2 and 4-1 in the ACC in mid-January, I would’ve said… 1) Why have they only played 10 games? 2) Yeah, I bet….
Although I was not pressing the panic button that many Pitt fans were (yes, I’m looking at all of you who were calling for Jeff Capel to be fired), I did have that “here we go again” feeling. Following that up with a less-than-spectacular win over Drexel, I really did not have great expectations for this season. Then, the Northwestern game happened. A game in which Pitt scored only 22 points in the first half and only led for the final six seconds of the game, I saw something that came only in bits and pieces the previous few seasons: fight.
Since the Northwestern game, Pitt has lost just one game to a now 9-3 Louisville squad. The Panthers were without their two leading scorers and rebounders, Justin Champagnie and Au’Diese Toney. Despite getting beat up on the glass without arguably their two best players, they still managed to stay within striking distance pretty late into that game before ultimately losing 64-54. Hardly a bad loss with all factors considered. Pitt showcased that fight again in its first matchup against Syracuse, another game they did not lead until the final 10 seconds of regulation. Once again playing without Champagnie, they erased an 18-point deficit to pull out a 63-60 victory in the Carrier Dome. Ten days later, the Panthers trounced the Orange 96-76 at The Pete. All of a sudden, a team that many had counted out after one game looked like it might be legit. Fast forward to a nationally-televised matchup against Duke this past Tuesday, and there was actually some buzz building around a program that had been in the depths of hell just three years prior. Pitt came out strong, and led the Blue Devils for all but ~30 seconds of the game before finally coming out victorious, 79-73.
Justin Champagnie has emerged as a legitimate star and ACC Player of the Year Candidate. The sophomore from Brooklyn is averaging 20.3 PTS and 13.0 REB, both of which are 1st in the ACC. This coming only 4 weeks after we were told he was going to miss 6-8 weeks with a knee injury. Some are saying he could be the best player Pitt has had since DeJuan Blair (who also had below average knees). I do think it is a little naive to think he can continue to put up these numbers for the rest of the season, but he sure has not shown any signs of slowing down. Throw in the ultimate glue guy in Au’Diese Toney (early ACC Most Improved candidate?) and the ACC leader in assists in Xavier Johnson, and all of a sudden it feels like Pitt has the star power to compete in a down year for the ACC.
The Panthers are 2nd in the ACC in rebounds per game and 3rd in assists. Two weaknesses of the teams the prior two years (rebounding and ball movement) have now become strengths. Defense is a work in progress, but it seems like they are finally learning how to get stops. Remember when every team could just zone Pitt up and the Panthers had no prayer of scoring more than 60 points? Well, the last two opponents have almost exclusively played zone, and Pitt’s scored 96 and 79 points in those games. All of these improvements are signs that there is legitimate change going on inside this program. I believed Jeff Capel was the right man for the job when he was hired, and I believe that today. I was nervous about the Duke game because I knew the Panthers had a real shot at winning and the game actually mattered. Isn’t this crazy? PITT BASKETBALL IS FUN AGAIN! Now… uh… can they please just beat Wake Forest on Saturday?