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ACC Preview #6 - Pitt

Can the Panthers maintain momentum?

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Greensboro
 GREENSBORO, NC - MARCH 19: Head coach Jeff Capel of the Pittsburgh Panthers leads his team against the Xavier Musketeers during the second round of the 2023 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament held at Greensboro Coliseum on March 19, 2023 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

After the 2021-22 season, Pitt coach Jeff Capel appeared to be in the hot seat. His AD, Heather Lyke, gave him a public endorsement. All too often that’s a kiss of death, but in this case, she actually meant it.

And Capel rewarded her faith, guiding the Panthers back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.

Good timing for Capel: prior to last season, he had turned in records of 14-19, 16-17, 10-12 and 11-21.

That worked out to 51-69, which is really close to what his brother Jason ran up when he coached Appalachian State (Jason Capel’s head coaching record is 53-70). As always, we say you have to toss out the Covid year and maybe give a bit of grace because of the turmoil that caused across the board in college basketball, but Capel may have been feeling the pressure when he signed Dior Johnson last year.

Calling Johnson a risk was an understatement. There were plenty of red flags, starting in high school: Johnson transferred 10 times, including three times in 2019-20 alone.

He committed to Syracuse, then bailed for Oregon, where he actually signed. Then he got out of that and went with Pitt last June in what seemed like a stunning coup by Capel.

By September, Johnson was arrested for a shockingly violent assault of a woman who apparently got his phone wet. He was charged with quite a few things but most were dropped and he ultimately pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors - simple assault and strangulation.

Even then he was allowed back on the team but had to redshirt.

This summer, Johnson joined the team on a trip to Spain and he was expected to start at the point this season.

Over the weekend though, Pitt announced, without any explanation that we can find, that he would no longer play for the Panthers.

Actually, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says this: “Multiple sources informed the Post-Gazette that Johnson’s departure from the university was not a decision made by Jeff Capel or any other official in the athletic department but rather by university officials. Sources said fear of backlash from Johnson’s previous criminal activity was the driving force in his dismissal from the university.”

That's fine, but why wait a year to do it? What in the world was the point? If they had done it last fall, when they should have, it would have been much better. Now it’s going to cause Pitt some problems, as we’ll see.

First, let’s look at who (else) won't be back:

Jamarius Burton, Nelly Cummings, Nike Sibande, Greg Elliott, John Hugley and Nate Santos are all gone but only Hugely and Santos transferred. Hugley is at Oklahoma now, after a rocky time at Pitt. He really didn’t play last year, first due to an injury and then due to some vague understanding of his mental health, and he’s long since been replaced. As for Santos, he’s off to Dayton.

Burton, Cummings, Elliott and Sibande all got serious minutes. None of them were awful players but none were all that great, either.

Pitt gets Blake Hinson, Federiko Federiko, Guillermo Diaz Graham, Jorge Diaz Graham and William Jeffress back and that’s all good news.

Hinson played very well after his transfer from Iowa State - so well that he won the Riley Wallace Award as the nation’s best transfer. At 6-7 and 235, Hinson is powerful and he’s also an excellent three point shooter. He averaged 15.3 ppg and 6.0 boards, while shooting 38 percent for threes and 42.8 percent overall.

Federiko was a surprise until a knee injury hit in March against Duke in the ACC Tournament and that essentially ended his season (he did play one more minute against Xavier). Overall though, he played 23.4 mpg and scored 6.6 ppg while grabbing 5.3 boards. But he also averaged nearly two blocks in those 23.4 minutes and that’s pretty good.

The original plan was for Hugely to man the center position and the slim Federiko, originally seen as a reserve, had to step up. But when he got hurt, Pitt was down to the even thinner Diaz twins.

Guillermo got the start against Mississippi State in the First Four and he played 37 minutes. Diaz Graham had five rebounds, two steals and two blocks, including one with 2.7 left that was absolutely critical to Pitt’s win.

Last season, the 6-11 Federiko was 220. Guillermo, the taller twin at 7-0, weighed 205. Jorge, an inch shorter, was just 190.

All three are listed at the same weight as last year, so one of three things is likely true: a) the Pitt website hasn’t updated the vitals, b) all three have failed to gain a single pound or c) the Pitt strength coach needs to have his sorry behind fired.

Jeffress missed last season with a foot injury but he’ll be back this year. And he’s a solid defender, so Capel will no doubt be happy to see him back in in action. He’s probably an early favorite to start opposite of Hinson.

On to the newbies!

Zach Austin comes to Pitt from High Point, where he had a solid two-year run after redshirting his freshman year. He is 6-6 and said to be a solid shotblocker which never hurts.

He should also contribute offensively and since Pitt now has no guards at all returning after Johnson got booted, he might be able to help out some with perimeter duties as well. We don’t know that for sure since we didn’t see High Point, but he’s 6-6 so he may have some skills there. Time will tell.

Ishmael Leggett moves down (up?) from Rhode Island, where he led the team in minutes (34.5) put up 16.4 ppg, grabbed 5.8 boards, shelled out 2.4 assists, and picked off 1.4 steals.

On the downside, he shot horribly, but the Rams were just 9-22 so presumably there was a lot of defensive pressure on Leggett. He should have more opportunity with Pitt since so much attention will go to Hinson, among others.

As for the freshmen, Jaland Lowe is a 6-1 guard out of Texas. He scored 2,000+ in high school so you’d think he could help offensively.

Carlton Carrington may get the nod at point. He’s a 6-4 combo guard out of Baltimore and obviously Pitt needs someone to step up there.

Barnes is 6-6 and from Cleveland. Lightly recruited, he was a high school teammate of John Hugley who apparently helped to convince him to choose Pitt before leaving. However, his only other offers were from Cleveland State and Miami. It seems like kind of a weird deal and you can’t help but wonder why he didn’t get more offers.

Finally, there’s Papa Kante, a 6-10 big man from Dakar, Senegal. Generally seen as a 4-star, Kante originally committed to Michigan but bailed on the Wolverines. We don’t know a lot about him yet but with several bigs on the roster, Pitt can be patient if he needs time to develop. And if he’s ahead of schedule, good for the Panthers. Their frontcourt could be really tough. Not many schools have that much big man depth.

Obviously Pitt’s biggest concern is who will be the point guard. Capel stuck with Johnson and who knows, maybe his faith was justified. Whatever Capel thought, the school apparently made that decision and Johnson is gone.

Capel’s choices are basically Leggett, Carrington and Lowe. He was at Duke when Mike Krzyzewski ran his Conveyance Offense periodically, which was basically what he did when he didn’t have a decent point guard. Essentially, the ball gets passed more to get around not having a legitimate point. That’s an oversimplification but that’s the essence of it. If he can’t find a reliable point, he could go with that. Of course, Capel is also the guy who said every position has gone away except point guard.

Hopefully the four bigs are bulking up, contrary to what we see on the official Pitt site. Hinson is probably not a future NBA player or anything, but he’s going to be a force this year in the ACC. Don’t overlook his strength. He shoots well of course but he’s pretty powerful, too.

In short, Pitt has some questions to answer, but also has a reasonable chance at being good again this season. Moving on from the Dior Distraction could be good in the long run too.

Capel has a lot of work to do with this group, but he appears to have some talent, including of course Hinson and a promising quartet of big guys. If he can get them all to work together and find a useful point guard, Pitt could be a problem again. However, the margin of error may be thin.