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Pitt men’s basketball team prepared to tip off season

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NCAA Basketball: ACC Tournament-North Carolina State vs Pittsburgh Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Pitt men’s basketball season is about to get underway. The Panthers open with a game tonight against St. Francis as the team hopes to get over the .500 hump under third-year head coach Jeff Capel.

Purely looking at the record, Pitt’s first two seasons under Capel weren’t great. But the program was forced to dig out of a tremendous mess, left partially by previous head coach Kevin Stallings (and, to be fair, somewhat of a decline seen under the departed Jamie Dixon before that). Expecting much more than the 30 wins they had over that time probably was not too realistic.

So far, Capel has met expectations. The team was disastrous in Stallings’ final year, going 8-24 and not winning an ACC game. Capel then took over and promptly won 14 games, including three conference games. Last year, the team was even better, nearly finishing .500 (16-17) while winning six ACC games. The Panthers have not been good but these have undoubtedly been rebuilding seasons.

More importantly than the record the last two seasons, Pitt is bringing in better talent. The program has seen marked improvements in recruiting as the Panthers’ class was in Rivals’ Top 25 (No. 22). Add that in to a team that returns most of its key players and there’s some reason for optimism here.

So what’s the goal here? Many would say an NCAA Tournament bid, even if that’s unrealistic. If that proves to be too much to chew on, a winning record would be a consolation prize. But even that will be challenging with fewer easy non-conference games this year.

Expectations from a national standpoint are still low. The Panthers were recently picked to finish 13th out of 15 teams in the ACC. But the hopes internally among the fanbase, of course, are for a better year than that. We’re starting to get past the point of just wanting to see any improvement and instead hoping to see the team contend for NCAA Tournament bids again. This year may be too early for that — time will tell. But the program is headed in the right direction and challenging for a bid should not be out of the realm of possibility.

So let’s take a look at the roster.

One thing of note here is that, for the third year in a row, this will be a very young squad. The only seniors are Terrell Brown and transfer Nike Sibande — and we still don’t even know if Sibande will be eligible to play. There are five juniors but three are walk-ons (Onyebuchi Ezeakudo, Aidan Fisch, Chayce Smith) and do not expect to play much. There could be as few as three upperclassmen playing significant minutes this year.

Still, there’s a good bit to like. A strong returning trio of Xavier Johnson, Justin Champagnie, and Au’Diese Toney are all back. That group averaged a total of 34 points per game and, Champagnie in particular, really made strides by the end of the year. Johnson certainly regressed last year and you would have liked to have seen a more substantial jump from Toney. But even if that group doesn’t turn into a high-scoring machine, it might not necessarily signify doom, as the Panthers have several incoming players expected to produce.

There’s the aforementioned Sibande, who averaged 13.9 ppg last year at Miami-Ohio (and prior to that, he averaged 16.1 ppg as a sophomore). Sibande, however, is still waiting to find out if he will even be declared eligible to play immediately this year after transferring (Twitter, by the way, is displeased). Even if he is not, the Panthers are still adding several players that could all play a role this year.

Another transfer, sophomore Ithiel Horton, comes to Pitt after a successful freshman year at Delaware in 2018-19, averaging nearly 14 points per game. Horton will be eligible since he sat out last year. Potentially along with Sibande, those two will help fill the holes left by Trey McGowens and Ryan Murphy, who both transferred out of the program.

Whether Sibande and Horton can replicate what they did playing against weaker competition remains to be seen. We’ve seen transfers come in from smaller schools and struggle to make an impact. And it’s worth it to point out that Sibande has not historically played well against the larger schools his teams have faced. But Horton has played only one season and should be able to build off what he did as a freshman. And Sibande could benefit from going from a team where he has to be ‘the guy’ to one where he’s potentially a third or even fourth option.

Then, of course, there are the incoming freshmen, led by Top 100 recruits John Hugley and also William Jeffress. What Pitt gets from those guys or the others is not clear. But they are expected to make an impact and play immediately. Hugley, a 6’9” powerhouse, was the Mr. Basketball runner-up in Ohio. Averaging 24 points and 13.3 rebounds per game as a high school senior, he will be relied upon to drastically improve the frontcourt, along with other freshmen, including 6’9” forward Noah Collier and, to a lesser degree, 6’10” Max Amadasun.

Pitt did suffer the losses of McGowens and Murphy, but as a whole, the team should almost certainly be able to offset their contributions. McGowens was the team’s third leading scorer but his 11.5 points per game will hardly be missed — especially if a more consistent shooter takes over. McGowens was one of the worst shooters on the team, connecting on less than 37% of his shots. Ditto for Murphy who, after a hot start, cooled off considerably and had largely played himself out of the rotation by year’s end while shooting even slightly worse than McGowens did.

I don’t mean to dismiss what those guys did entirely. Both, at times, were the best player on the court for the team. But they were arguably the two most inefficient players and Pitt should certainly be able to make up their 19 points per game elsewhere. Even if they cannot, the hope is that their minutes will be filled by more accurate shooters who don’t eat up as many misses.

I don’t profess to know what to expect from this group, folks. It’s clear that the program is headed in the right direction but the Panthers are still in the talent-heavy ACC. Comparing solely the record, whatever it will be, to last year’s mark will not be entirely fair.

Oh, and the biggest factor in what Pitt can achieve this year might not have anything to do with ability. Just as it’s affected the football season, COVID will certainly play a part in what teams can accomplish.

Can Pitt play for an NCAA Tournament bid? Crazier things have happened. Even more importantly than that, though, I like how the program is progressing and where they are headed under Capel’s direction thus far.

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