The weather’s getting colder and we’re past the halfway mark in the football season. In running this blog for about a decade now, that generally is my signal that it’s time for the shooting of the basketballs.
Basketball always (and I do mean, always) sneaks up on me. It’s a lot different from football where training camp is a much bigger deal. The start of camp gives you like a one-month warning that games are about to start. There’s no such bellwether in basketball aside from the one-off Midnight Madness events.
Pitt has its first game this week - an exhibition against your friendly neighborhood branch campus, Pitt-Johnstown. The game is on Thursday night at the Pete and, like last year, will probably draw a good deal from attention. That’s because the team once again has a lot of moving parts this year.
Those moving parts actually start from the top.
If you’re looking for a focal point for the 2018-19 Pitt basketball team, as it was two years ago, it’s going to be the coach. More than anything, this team’s ‘story’ for this year, however it is ultimately written, is going to revolve around new head coach Jeff Capel.
Capel was hired to replace Kevin Stallings in the offseason. Stallings’ tenure was short and it was not pretty. I’m not going to recap it again. For one thing, I don’t want to and for another, you don’t want to read it. But the lowlights are summed up here. Predictably, things ended in an ugly manner with Stallings and the school, only after some haggling, finally resolving a contract dispute as Pitt forced him out in search of greener pastures.
The coaching will be the focal point not only because the Stallings era went so badly but also because there are such high hopes for the program under Capel, who has two very strong selling points at a minimum. First, he’s won. In his first coaching job, he led VCU to four winning seasons and an NCAA Tournament appearance. Then, at Oklahoma, he peaked with a 30-6 season where the Sooners went to the Elite Eight. Things didn’t exactly end well there with a player violation, vacated wins, and some rebuilding, resulting in a quick exit after five seasons, but he saw some success there.
The other big selling point with Capel is that he is a dynamic recruiter. After his stint at Oklahoma, he helped Duke reel in plenty of big-time recruits and the hope is that he can do the same at Pitt. Capel won’t immediately start hauling in top five recruiting classes but Pitt is already primed for bigger things as they are in the running for some elite recruits. He also managed to land some quality guards despite having little time, just in time for this year.
Capel will certainly get some time to prove himself and that’s not only in terms of physical time to turn the program around but also from the fanbase. That fanbase soured on Stallings quickly in part because he was not a popular hire in place of the departed Jamie Dixon and also because the team did not win. Conversely, Capel was a very popular pick and based on the depths to which the program sunk, will get some leeway based on that. Stallings took over a team that went to the NCAA Tournament and returned nearly everyone. Capel is taking over what Stallings left.
The focal point here is going to be on making some degree of improvement and that seems pretty easy to do when you follow a season without a conference win. If Capel wins a dozen games this year, that will be viewed as a decent first step. If he wins 15, he’ll be hailed as a hero.
This is a guard-heavy team, to say the least. I had a difficult time thinking of the bigs coming back to the team for this year and, that’s because there aren’t many of them.
11 of the 15 players on the roster are listed purely as guards or a guard/forward combination. Simply put, there’s not much size on this team and that’s obviously a point of emphasis in Capel’s recruiting going forward.
Pitt lost its starting backcourt of Marcus Carr and Parker Stewart to transfers this offseason. I know that many will look at that as simply the cost of doing business in getting a new coach and, to some degree, that’s true. But that should end up being a pretty talented duo and I was sorry to see them go as I think both could have been pretty good this year. They only averaged about 19.1 points per game combined last year but that was nearly 1/3 of the team’s 62 points per contest. Further, Stewart became the best player on the team and really played well as the season went on after a slow start.
The flipside, obviously, is the old Ralph Kiner adage of, ‘We can finish last with or without them.’ The point is that, while they were good players, it didn’t ultimately matter last year because the team was so bad. Don’t get me wrong. Those guys will continue to get better and I’d rather have them than not. But the hope is that their replacements can be equally as good as at least what was produced last season.
The majority of the team’s guards are underclassmen with a few exceptions. Junior Malik Ellison (who sat out last year) and grad transfer Sidy N’dir figure to play a good bit. Does that last as the year goes on? Who knows, really? Ellison is a team captain so you expect he’ll be relied upon to get minutes. N’dir is more interesting to me. Last year he was a starter for New Mexico State, but he only averaged 7.9 ppg. It will depend what others do but it wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t play huge minutes the entire season.
Elsewhere, it’s mostly question marks. Kham Davis, who was spotty last year, returns. How he fits in this mix, though, is unknown. Others are incoming freshmen Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, and Au’Diese Toney, as well as the walk-ons, including Curtis Aiken, Jr. McGowens, in particular, is a four-star Rivals recruit.
For as much as Davis is a question mark, the others are even bigger questions since we haven’t seen them play a single game. Further compounding the issue is that at least one of them is going to be expected to step up and contribute - likely at point guard. The good news for them is that, with Ellison and N’dir, they won’t be asked to do as much as Carr/Stewart/Stevenson were last year. But the hope is that they’ll show us something sooner rather than later.
Shamiel Stevenson and Jared Wilson-Frame are easily the team’s top two overall returning players from last season. While both are listed as guard/forwards on the roster, I placed them both here, in part, just to create a bit of balance. Stevenson, in particular, plays more like a small forward to me, anyway.
These two guys will create some production, no doubt. The key is going to be to get that production from Wilson-Frame more efficiently than we saw last year when he was a volume shooter, mostly by necessity. He led the team in scoring last season with 13 points a game, but shot under 38% from the field. He not only took a team-leading 379 shot attempts, which were 23% of the team’s overall attempts, but he also took over 100 shots more than anyone else on the team (Marcus Carr was next with 268). Wilson-Frame will hopefully need to shoot less this year. But I add that, with the losses of Ryan Luther and the aforementioned Carr/Stewart, we could still see a heavy dose of JWF shots if the freshmen guards aren’t stepping up.
Also at forward is Kene Chukwuka (forward/center) and Samson George. We all know Chukwuka is going to play some out of a necessity for some size but I’m particularly interested to see how much Pitt gets out of George. Without Luther, another guy with some size is going to have to play unless Pitt is going really small with a couple of guards, Wilson-Frame, and Stevenson, while playing them a ton of minutes.
I have zero expectations for Chukwuka, really. Not that I don’t think he can contribute. Rather, I just have no idea what to expect from him. He’s a high-energy guy that clearly needed more seasoning last year. I think there’s a lot of value in what he does but the team needs him shooting better than 36% from the field. Overall, the team will be well-served if they can rely on him for some defense, grabbing rebounds, and bringing energy off the bench. If they need to rely on him for scoring more than five or six points a game, that’s likely going to spell trouble. He may very well be able to produce more than that, mind you. But if he is, that probably means, at a minimum, that other guys are not stepping up and doing enough.
There might be a guy more valuable to Pitt than Terrell Brown, I guess. But Brown looks like the one guy they can’t really afford to lose.
Brown returns at center for Pitt and, while he was serviceable as the year went on, the team is in a tight spot because of a lack of depth behind him. The 6’9” Chukwuka will be able to fill in and play some center but I expect he’ll be needed as a reserve forward, too. The only other option is backup Peace Ilegomah. Ilegomah got a little work last year but not much, averaging one rebound and less than a point a game.
It’s clear that Brown is the guy here. He played sparsely early on until the end of the non-conference portion when Ryan Luther went down with a foot injury against McNeese State and missed the rest of the year. Now, Brown very much proved that he was a work-in-progress. Ideally, he was the kind of kid that you would have redshirted on a good team as he needed more seasoning. But he did show nice glimpses at times of being a good player, like he did in a 19-point, 8-rebound effort against Clemson. The hope here is that he protects the rim and develops into a solid rebounder while occasionally being a threat on offense. Offensively, the team will want more from him at some point in his career. For this year, though? I think his focus really should be at the defensive end, on the glass, and staying out of foul trouble. Any offense beyond the bare minimum from him is probably a bonus to some degree.
What’s the prognosis for this season? Personally, while the team is still very much rebuilding, I would be surprised if things were as bad as they were last year. I’m not expecting a miracle here or any type of postseason tournament. But it’s very hard to win only eight games twice in a row.
The overall roster looks ... better? That sounds a little nuts for a team that lost three of its best players, right?
Well, Luther missed most of last season, so take him out of the equation since the team was without him most of the year. Brown started most of the year at center last year and should be improved.
Ditto for Stevenson (who started 13 games) and, probably to a lesser degree, Wilson-Frame, who has probably peaked or come close to it. But Davis and Chukwuka, who started a combined 35 games, should both also be better. Bench guys Ilegomah and Samson should be better.
Really, this comes down to the Carr and Parker losses since Pitt didn’t lose much else. Those losses do hurt. However, that’s more based on what they could have done in the future at Pitt. In terms of what they produced last year and trying to make up for that, I expect two other guys to be able to do the same or close to it, whether its Ellison, N’dir, McGowens, Johnson, or some combination thereof.
This is a team very much in flux. But it’s not changing to the degree as it did before year, either, when you had, what, two returnees? Half of last year’s team is back and those guys should all be better.
Is that good enough to go .500? Not likely. If I had to make a prediction, I’d expect this will be another bad season and say Pitt will win something like 12-13 games. That’s not good, obviously, but it would be an improvement over last year. And with such a rebuilding program, that’s all you can really ask for at this point.