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ACC Preview #11 - Pitt

Are the Panthers ready to roar?

PITTSBURGH, PA -JANUARY 22: Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Jeff Capel looks on during the college basketball game between the Duke Blue Devils and the Pittsburgh Panthers on January 22, 2019 at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh, PA.
Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Was Pitt a disappointment last season?


After finishing 14-19 in his first season, Jeff Capel posted a 16-17 record in his second year in Steel City.

In his first year, Capel inherited a disaster from his predecessor, the unfortunately Kevin Stallings. If Stallings had only stalled his program that would be one thing. He wrecked it in just two short years.

Capel hit the ground running and started to recruit with a focus on athletic, versatile players.

In his first season, Pitt’s freshman backcourt of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens was promising.

Last year it was less so.

Johnson was erratic and Capel expressed some frustration about his lack of progress. And after the season, McGowens opted to transfer to Nebraska.

Fellow guard Ryan Murphy, who was a solid shooter but a limited athlete, also transferred.

Big man Eric Hamilton, who boasted that he would finally be able to show his offensive skills after transferring to Pitt, has also graduated.

As it turns out, he overestimated his abilities: he averaged 5.5 ppg and 4.4 rpg and only pulled 16.6 mpg despite Pitt’s desperate need for inside production and defense. It’s not like he didn't have a chance. He just couldn’t do it (Hamilton has signed with the Cheshire Phoenix and the PR guys are really trying to pump him up. Check it out: “Hamilton bolstered his championship pedigree after Pittsburgh defeated Northwestern in the Fort Myers Tip-Off final...He is very versatile, combing size and athleticism with a great skill set. When given the ball in the post he was one of the most efficient scorers in the whole of Division 1 basketball”).

Pitt returns Johnson, a 6-3/200 lb. junior, Au’Diese Toney, a 6-6/210 lb. junior, Justin Champagnie, a 6-6/200 lb. sophomore, Terrell Brown, a 6-10/235 lb. senior, Karim Coulibaly, a 6-8/215 lb. sophomore and Gerald Drumgoole, a 6-5/200 lb. sophomore.

Pitt’s critical weakness is shooting. Johnson’s actually fell from his freshman year. In his first year, Johnson shot 41.5 percent overall and 35.2 percent from deep.

Last year his shooting declined to 33 percent from behind the line and 37.3 percent overall. Free throws ticked up from 75.1 percent to 76.1 percent.

Clearly he’s capable of better.

Toney improved: he went from 36 percent to 46.1 percent overall last year and from a miserable 24.6 percent from the bonusphere to a reasonable but not great 32.8 percent. He’s a pain on defense though and that will get him time on the court.

Brown, Coulibaly and Drumgoole are not likely to be major offensive contributors although we could see Coulibaly making a big leap overall this season. In Champagnie though, Capel may have found a star.

He established quickly that he is an ACC-level player. Champagnie is smart and versatile and while he also didn’t shoot particularly well - 40.6 percent and 26.2 percent on threes - he put up 12.7 ppg and an impressive 7.0 rpg. A lot of people are going to regret not pursuing him more ardently. Champagnie had 30 points against Georgia Tech and 31 vs. Wake Forest.

Incidentally, his twin brother, Julian plays for St. John’s and has had a similar level of success.

Capel brings in seven newcomers, five freshmen and two transfers.

The transfers are 6-3/200 lbs. Ithiel Horton from Delaware and 6-4/185 lbs. Nike Sibande from Miami of Ohio. The NCAA announced on Thursday that Sibande won’t be able to play this season. Barring a successful appeal, he’ll have to wait until next year.

Horton sat out last season and shot well at Delaware, hitting 40.9 percent on threes and 43.3 percent overall.

As we saw at Georgia Tech with Bubba Parham, shooting well at a smaller school doesn’t necessarily translate to the ACC. Horton is bigger though (6-3) and could find more success as a shooter.

The freshman class addresses Pitt’s struggle with bigger teams the last two years. Femi Odukale is 6-5/185 but everyone else is bigger. William Jeffress is 6-7/205, Noah Collier 6-8/210, John Hugley 6-9/240 and Max Amadasun 6-10/230.

The main addition here is probably Hugley. He has offensive skills so if he plays defense and stays out of foul trouble, he’ll be on the court a lot. He’s said to have good footwork and he’s already 240. He could be a huge difference maker.

Jeffress can shoot a bit and he’s a solid young talent. However, he just turned 17 in June and could probably stand some development time. Redshirting could be an option.

Amadasun is behind offensively but is a good defender and an excellent shot blocker. Pitt could run him at times with Brown to really lock down the inside as Brown is also an excellent shot blocker.

Collier, who attended the Westtown School where Duke product Cam Reddish matriculated, fits Pitt’s mold of athletic and versatile players. He may be a guy who develops for a year or two but he should contribute eventually. He’s a good get for Capel.

Odukale is well regarded. When he signed, Capel said that “Femi displayed outstanding versatility, talent, toughness and competitiveness during an outstanding post-grad season.”

So while Pitt still needs some shooters to step up, rebounding, inside defense and probably post offense should be markedly better.

And as we’ve said often, Capel is building a solid core of versatile, athletic players.

Take a look:

  • Johnson, 6-3
  • Horton, 6-3
  • Drumgoole, 6-5
  • Odukale, 6-5
  • Toney, 6-6
  • Champagnie, 6-6
  • Jeffress, 6-7
  • Coulibaly, 6-8
  • Collier 6-8

All of these guys are athletic. All of them, with the possible exception of Horton, can play at least two positions. And all of them are capable defenders.

What it reminds us of is teams of Coach K’s early years, specifically the 87-89 teams.

We found those teams fascinating because they could fall way, way behind and did several times, then fight their way back on defense.

And one thing we’ve learned from listening to Coach K for a long time is that you don’t force players into your philosophy but rather you adapt your approach to your players.

Obviously Capel was in a position to learn that, in addition to the lessons he absorbed from his late father, Jeff Capel II, who was a basketball lifer.

We can’t know about the offense on this team. Presumably Hugley and the other bigger guys can address rebounding, a major weakness over the first two years of Capel’s Pitt program and score inside. If more shooters don’t emerge though teams will just try to zone Pitt and force the Panthers to shoot outside.

Even if the offense struggles though, Pitt may have enough athleticism to force defensive battles, and if that’s the case, they should win their share of those games. If you can force turnovers, then poor shooting doesn’t really matter as much and if the other team doesn’t shoot well because of your defense, good shooting is less important too. They might be able to win just by wearing other teams out, somewhat like Virginia does.

Frankly we’re excited to see Pitt this year. Capel now has enough talent to compete with anyone in the conference and has a real chance to move up in the standings.

And consider this: of the primary rotations players, or at least what we expect them to be, only Johnson, Toney and Brown are upperclassmen and Brown is the only senior.

Finally look at this too: last year, Pitt finished 16-17. Of those losses, Wake was by four, one loss to Louisville went to overtime, Virginia was by three, NC State was by four and an early loss to Nicholls was by five. With minimal size and poor shooting, Pitt still wasn’t all that far from a 20-win season.

Just food for thought.