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Trey McGowens, A Bigger Loss Than You Think

NCAA Basketball: ACC Tournament-Wake Forest vs Pittsburgh Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

New is exciting. New presents all sorts of possibilities. New is an opportunity for change. New is what many Pittsburgh Panther fans are looking forward to after a season that started with such promise, but ended a lot closer to preseason projections.

Trey McGowens wasn’t new. But just a season ago, his arrival on campus represented a change for the Pitt program, and a welcomed one at that. McGowens along with classmates Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney were going to usher in a new era under head coach Jeff Capel where a return to the NCAA Tournament would be possible every season.

That new hasn’t happened. The Panthers haven’t made the NCAA Tournament, that new era hasn’t yet arrived in the minds of some fans, and Trey McGowens will no longer be a part of making either of things a reality for Pitt.

His transfer announcement on Wednesday didn’t surprise many fans. At least a few even expressed some level of excitement as it was going to open up an additional scholarship, one that could be used on the next great, new player.

But are the Panthers really better off without McGowens? If his head and heart aren’t in it, and he is transferring, then the answer is definitey yes. However, in terms of what Pitt is losing on the court, I think the answer is not really.

Perhaps that surprises a few of you. Before the season I stated (somewhere on Twitter) that McGowens’ development would be the difference between the Panthers winning 15-16 games or 20 games. Obviously, Pitt didn’t win 20 games and I didn’t shy away from critiquing McGowens during the season. Fair or unfair, he never became the player the Panthers needed - a true secondary ball handler and decision maker, consistent outsider shooter, and stronger finisher around the rim. A tall task for a teenager, and I didn’t even mention defense or any intangibles. Let’s tackle these one at a time.

Arguably the best/most important drive (in terms of his development) of McGowens collegiate career happened in the same game as what became a routine type of turnover for him. From the onset of the season teams started to take away his ability to drive right. While he occasionally found middling success going left, a minor step forward, when it came down to it, McGowens often reverted back to the player he was as a freshman, in terms of handling the ball.

That player is very much the definition of a right-handed, straight-line driver. Blessed with elite collegiate athleticism but with an unrefined handle, he could never truly get to any spot on the floor unless he used brute force, a step back in my opinion.

Really good ball handlers don’t engage much of their upper arm (shoulder to elbow) just dribbling the ball in the game, but rather can control the ball from the elbow down, manipulating it with a snap of their wrists. This also helps them navigate the lane and crowded spaces much easier. That’s just not where McGowens is right now, at least not consistently.

Not really growing in this area, but at least being able to go left using his left hand every now and then would have been fine except...

Not only did McGowens not develop a consistent left hand, but he turned the ball over when he tried. As a freshman, using his left hand and driving left were areas in which he needed to grow. As a sophomore, they were often a source of frustration.

That’s unfortunate for McGowens as he actually possesses good vision and an above average feel for where his teammates are on the offensive end. This type of pass has always been in his arsenal - deep penetration, usually leaving his feet but finding a teammate in the weak side corner or a drop pass to a teammate on the opposite block.

At his best attacking down hill, especially if a help defender doesn’t step in before he finds paint, McGowens is more than capable of finding teammates in scoring positions. His feel in ball screen situations also improved. While his handle doesn’t allow him to manipulate the defense the way Johnson does, McGowens employs a hesitation dribble, usually when going right, that provides him with a split second to see developing driving and passing lanes.

But as I mentioned, teams started to take away his ability to drive right. The first clip being a very typical example of how teams, in this example one player, strung out his drives, not allowing straight-line penetration. The second clip is an example of a very typical drive (going left) and finish (still using right hand) for McGowens.

But what was just sprinkled in previously is more apparent here: When ACC play started, Pitt found ways for him to attack going left on the empty side of the floor - no help defender - coming out of the their motion DHO, pistol offense, and isolation. A lot of that was the product of McGowens rejecting inside ball screens.

Towards the end of regular season play, he even showed a level of comfort rejecting ball screens that might send him into traffic. Additionally, he was confident making reads off of back screens where going either direction is an equal possibility, sometimes going before the defense was set (and not drawing an offensive foul on the screen setter), sometimes changing pace, and not having to focus on his dribble coming out of them. Again, he showed an improved feel in ball screen situations.

Unfortunately, the three-point shooting never came around for him. In early February, I wrote an article breaking down his shot selection from beyond the arc. The results, albeit a small sample (has to be said as a declaimer), showed McGowens was solid in catch-and-shoot and step-in/transition triples (38.7%), but was woeful any time he launched after taking an east or west dribble of some kind (5.6%).

You’ll see much of the same above; it’s every three-pointer he attempted from the Panthers game at Notre Dame (2/5) to the conclusion of regular season play (3/4).

  • 7-18 (38.9%) on catch-and-shoot three-pointers.
  • 1-6 (16.7%) on transition or step-in three-pointers.
  • 3-10 (30%) on off-the-bounce three-pointers.

Overall, he shot 11-34 (32.4%) in the last nine games of the regular season, just above his final season average (31.1%). On catch-and-shoot attempts, McGowens likely would have shot above 40% if he didn’t take an awkward hesitation on at least three or four of them. He actually was the three-pointer shooter Pitt needed in those situations. The issue was he took too many off-the-bounce heaves from beyond the arc; the two makes at Virginia Tech are the ones you can definitely live with - completely within the offense.

The defensive end is where many people think McGowens will be missed the most. That is partially true. In press and pressure situations, he was pretty much a stud. But in the half court, his only above average attribute was shooting pass lanes and that sometimes ended up coming back to bite him. McGowens isn’t nearly the on-ball defender that Johnson and Toney are.

I wrote an article about it in December, so I am not going to go into it with as much detail, but he really lacked disciplined in the half court. For every awesome steal and dunk or layup there were at least two examples of him biting on a ball handlers move, leading to him playing defense from behind while his man had a free run at the rim.

McGowens was also prone to ball watching which led to losing his man and late rotations. While his screen navigation was better by the end of the year, it was rather poor until the calendar flipped over. This is coachable, however.

Yes, I realize that Elijah Hughes is an All-ACC performer, but many viewed McGowens as an All-ACC defensive player. If that’s the case, he has to offer something more than that.

No, I didn’t forget about the need for him to become a stronger finisher. McGowens finished the season with a 49.5% conversion rate at the rim, where he took 31.7% of his attempts. Last year, he took half of his shots at the rim (50.2%) while converting 50% of them. By the numbers he got to the basket less and it was still basically a coin flip when it came to making an attempt there or not. There was no statistical improvement here, just regression.

But McGowens showed signs of trying to work through that. If he was able to attack downhill on a straight line, he could finish with his left hand. Sure, the total sample of left handed layup attempts on the season had to be less than 12-15, but McGowens was making progress. Of course any type of circular route to the rim ended poorly, and his understanding of where he is in relation to the rim remained something he needed to work on regardless of what direction he drove.

In the end, McGowens didn’t enter his second season as the player the Panthers needed to really move the needle, and not all of that can be placed on him of course. But by its conclusion, he showed signs that he was on his way to getting there. The emergence of freshman forward Justin Champagnie gave him a real drop pass target. The same could be said in the limited minutes that he played alongside fellow freshman Karim Coulibaly. Had Pitt had more than one reliable shooter at any point, the spacing would have been much better. That alone could have changed the entire course of the season.

Do I think McGowens is the type of player that can turn a program around by himself, no. There are very few of those players. But do I think he could have been an important piece on a deeper more talented team, absolutely.

Again, with his head and heart not in it, it’s better than he and the Panthers part ways. But while a new player tends to bring a lot of excitement to a program and its fans, there were signs that a new McGowens might have emerged in his third season. A loss that Pitt may not be able to replace right away.

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