After a lackluster start to the 2020-21 season in Pitt’s 80-70 loss to St. Francis, Pitt point guard Xavier Johnson put on one of the best performances of his career against Drexel and led his team to an 83-74 win on Saturday. In the non-conference matchup, Johnson not only posted his second-highest point total to date, with 27, but he also addressed some of the issues that hindered him against St. Francis.
Most notably, Johnson got his shots to fall consistently against Drexel after going 2-for-9 on field goals against St. Francis, including a 0-for-5 performance from beyond the arc. On Saturday, he went 9-for-13 overall and 3-for-7 from long range against Drexel. Turnovers were also a problem against St. Francis, but not only did Johnson more than halve those against Drexel, dropping his total from seven to three, but he also came up with two steals after having none in the season opener.
Pitt head coach Jeff Capel was impressed with what he saw from Johnson and said as much during his postgame press conference.
“I thought he valued the basketball a little bit more and slowed down the play to a better pace,” Capel said of Johnson. "He was really locked in on both sides of the ball. ... We were able to get him off the ball a little bit. I thought he made good decisions for his 18 assists in two games, which is really good. His turnovers today were a lot better, which was because he valued the ball. Obviously, he was able to get to the basket and make some shots, [and he] made a huge three in the second half for us when they started to cut the lead.”
All told, Johnson looked more like the version of himself that the Pitt faithful are used to seeing, as he had 27 points, eight assists, six rebounds and two steals against Drexel. His point total was the second best of his career to date, and it marked his best performance ever in the Petersen Events Center. Against St. Francis just three days earlier, he had nine points, 10 assists, five rebounds and zero steals. And while that stat line was none too shabby, with X matching a career high in assists, his miscues and general inability to score from the field proved too much of an issue for the Panthers to overcome.
Aside from Johnson, the only Pitt players to make significant contributions through the first two games have been Au’Diese Toney and Justin Champagnie. Toney appears ready to contribute as one of the team’s primary scorers, as he has posted back-to-back 20-point games. That should help fill the void left behind by Trey McGowens, who transferred to Nebraska in the offseason. And Champagnie, Pitt’s top returning scorer and rebounder, has not lost a step since his breakout freshman campaign, as he has averaged 15.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in his first two games.
But behind the triumvirate of Johnson, Toney and Champagnie, Pitt has seen slower starts to the season for much-hyped first-year contributors like former blue-chip recruits John Hugley and William Jeffress and Delaware transfer Ithiel Horton. Horton has been held to five points in each of his two games, and the two freshmen are averaging 4.5 points apiece, although they showed promise.
Given all that, consistency will be key for the Panthers moving forward, as it appears Johnson, Toney and Champagnie will be called on to shoulder the scoring load for the team while the newcomers get up to speed. Pitt’s next scheduled test will come on Dec. 9, when the team heads to Evanston, Illinois, to face Northwestern in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.