Pitt came into tonight’s game with Louisville knowing they’d be missing head coach Jeff Capel due to a COVID diagnosis. But just before the game, fans learned the team was also going to be missing star players Justin Champagnie and Au’Diese Toney, too. Add it all up and it ended in a 64-54 loss for the Panthers.
Pitt was surprisingly led by freshman Femi Odukale, who scored 16. Xavier Johnson added ten, but he shot only 3-9 from the field and wasn’t nearly as impactful as they needed missing both Champagnie and Toney. I respect Johnson because I think he’s forcing fewer bad shots and doing more to really ‘fit’ within the offense. But the Panthers needed more from him and Ithiel Horton (Horton had only six points and was 3-9 from the field) if they were going to really make a run at winning. John Hugley continued to show flashes, adding seven points and leading the team with seven rebounds.
Pitt (5-2) could have played worse. They weren’t particularly effective on offense but most teams would not be while missing so much of their scoring. Another factor? The Panthers were beaten badly on the boards by Louisville (5-1), 45-26. Why so bad? Well, while we will talk a lot about the scoring of Champagnie and Toney, it’s important to remember that they are also the team’s top two rebounders, pulling in just over 17 boards per game. Missing them certainly hurt just as much on the glass as it did in terms of the team’s scoring.
First things first — Pitt fought valiantly tonight. They were missing Capel and their top two scorers and still kept things close most of the way before fading a bit late. They trailed by only five inside of 6:30 left and were right there all game long. You’ve just got to give the Panthers credit for hanging in there as well as they did. There’s always room for improvement but I had no expectations of a different result.
The losses of Champagnie and Toney, of course, cannot be understated. They are the team’s top two scorers and, arguably, their top two players. Missing one would be bad — missing both at the same time is just very hard on a team fighting to merely be relevant in the ACC. The two combine to provide a little less than half of the team’s scoring but it’s more than that. As I mentioned, they are the top two rebounders, too.
How long they are out is anybody’s guess but it sounds as if Toney could return relatively soon while Champagnie is out 6-8 weeks. And if that proves to be true, it could be a season killer for Pitt.
The Panthers have players capable of stepping up. Xavier Johnson, when on, can be one of the better scorers in the conference. But he struggled tonight and what Pitt gets from the likes of Horton, Odukale, Nike Sibande, and Hugley is entirely up in the air on a game-by-game basis. Campagnie, Toney, and Johnson are the three best players by a considerable margin and the Panthers are missing two of them at the moment.
Simply put, the team is not good enough to weather that sort of a storm long-term. If the season is going to be saved, they’re going to need, at a minimum, a quick return from Toney. And, frankly, even that might not be enough. The margin for error is razor thin for a team like Pitt and while they competed a bit tonight, they are going to struggle to win games as a whole as long as they’re missing both Champagnie and Toney.