I seemingly say this every year but it’s no less true — basketball season always sneaks up on me. It gets less publicity than football, obviously, and the fact that it starts after football doesn’t help. But still, there just always seems to be such a lack of a buzz for college hoops outside of maybe the schools that are primarily basketball first.
Before I get too far into the weeds, it’s worth pointing out that Cardiac Hill will be covering every home game directly from media row at The Pete this year, with maybe a handful of exceptions. We’ve hit a bunch in the past but this year are trying to get to all of them. Stephen (@stephen_gertz) and Jordan (@viewfromthezoo) will be covering those games for us while undoubtedly bringing you more insightful recaps of the home games than I could. If you’re on Twitter, give them a follow. I’ll grab the road contests, so if you have a soft spot for drivel and unnecessary babbling, there’s your ticket.
Pitt kicks off the season on Wednesday against Florida State. Obviously that’s a bit of a change than when you’re typically starting with cupcakes. This is the first time the basketball program has ever opened with a conference opponent, in fact, according to the official Pitt preview.
In terms of a Florida State preview, I got nothing, folks. Nothing of substance that you can’t find in five minutes using your Google machine, anyway. None of us have seen any basketball yet and using last year (Florida State was one of Pitt’s three conference wins) as a measuring stick is just kind of dumb. The Seminoles have lost some key players but were also picked to finish fifth in the conference in the preseason poll. Really, though, I’m still trying to learn about this Pitt team.
So, what do we know about Pitt? Not much, clearly. They breezed by Slippery Rock, which is what you want to see in an exhibition. But they also reportedly lost to Maryland by nine in a closed scrimmage so they’ve got some work to do.
‘Improvement’ will the most oft-used term this year, I imagine. Less focus on returning to the Pitt of old and more on simply becoming respectable again. After a disastrous tenure under Kevin Stallings, which saw the team go 8-24 in 2017-18 (including a winless conference season), the Panthers rebounded nicely under Jeff Capel in his first season. Last year, Pitt was a more reasonable 14-19.
What shouldn’t be lost is that the team was still not good, folks. The Panthers only won three ACC matchups and two of those didn’t come until the final three games of the year after dropping a messy 13 games in a row. But Pitt was, for all intents and purposes, better, and mostly avoided setting themselves on fire in the preseason. And while I’d have to revisit the box scores, they also seemed to generally keep the games more competitive.
Last year was an open book for Capel with no real requirements but this year, more will be expected. The team lost Jared Wilson-Frame, its second-leading scorer last year, but returns most of their core, including star Xavier Johnson. They add to that some solid recruits. That includes wing Justin Champagnie, who was once expected to miss significant time and is suddenly now ready to go.
What Pitt gets from its recruits is really the big unknown. They had a decent 2019 class but no known true gems that seem like bonafide stars. That said, you could say the same thing about Johnson last year and he went from being a Rivals three-star recruit to the team’s best player and one folks are getting concerned about leaving school early for the NBA Draft. You just never know.
We’re not just talking about freshmen, either. Grad transfer Eric Hamilton is looked to in order to provide a bit of muscle inside — a major weakness for Pitt last year. There’s also JUCO transfer guard Ryan Murphy, who I will at least one time refer to as Ryan Luther this year, though he is probably not needed quite as much.
The good news is that the new players will not be relied upon like last year’s group was. That’s because with Johnson, Trey McGowens, Au’Diese Toney, and (hopefully) Terrell Brown, there’s a solid core there to take the lion’s share of the work, if needed. The freshmen will play and will be needed but it’s hardly the situation it was last year when X, Trey, and Toney were essentially handed the reins and told to ‘go.’
The goal that many want is to reach the NCAA Tournament. I get that. Whether that’s asking too much is to be determined but, when you consider the team won only three conference games last year, it’s kind of a difficult ask. A more reasonable jump may be to get over .500 first but I also don’t think an NCAA Tournament goal is entirely out of reach, either, if production can be had from the incoming players and everything breaks just right.
The expectations from the outside seem to be closer to that latter goal of .500 as opposed to contending for anything meaningful. Pitt was picked to finish tenth in the ACC preseason poll and while you can argue about the importance of such things, most reasonable predictions elsewhere do not seem to be expecting much out of Pitt, solidly affixing the ‘improvement’ label to them on the assembly line. Fair, reasonable, and at the end of the day, possibly even correct.
I’m hoping for more. We all are. But I expect Pitt still has a fair share of growing to do as this is a team with an abundance of underclassmen leading the way. The good news is that the ship is headed in the right direction.
And against Florida State, we should have our first barometer on just where things stand in the rebuilding process.