Much has been made of the return of Pitt’s Justin Champagnie, and for good reason. The sophomore small forward has been a catalyst for the Panthers when he’s been on the court, and without him, the team’s recent 96-76 rout of Syracuse might not have been possible.
But the Panthers were able to stay afloat in Champagnie’s absence and are now converting his contributions into tallies in the win column. Neither of those outcomes were certainties last season, and one of the key reasons why year three of the Jeff Capel era has looked so different than seasons past is that Pitt has a weapon in shooting guard Ithiel Horton, who has begun to relish his role and is becoming the sharpshooter Pitt has been missing.
Early this season, it did not appear that Horton was quite the superstar once described by Capel, who said last year that the Delaware transfer was “as good as anyone on our team.” That was due to the fact that Horton shot just 29.2 percent from long range in his first five games, averaging 5.4 points per outing and going 0-for-8 in the last two of those contests. The slow start was likely due to some rust after a year-long post-transfer layoff, but it was a real concern for Pitt nonetheless.
However, Horton has gotten more comfortable on the court since then, and as a result, he has turned things around completely. In Pitt’s last four games, the 6’3”, 200-pound shooting guard has upped his success rate on three-point shots to 43.3 percent. In addition, his overall field-goal percentage is up from 30.3 in the first five games to 44.7 in the last four. And thanks to his increased success from the field, Horton has averaged 14.5 points per game over the Panthers’ last four outings.
Horton’s 14.5-point scoring average is the best among Pitt players who have been available for all four of the team’s games since Dec. 16. The only other such player posting a double-figure average in that span is Xavier Johnson, who has 13.0 points per game since Dec. 16. And considering the team’s mix of COVID-19 issues, injuries and one concerning off-court incident, all of which have rendered players periodically unavailable, Horton has placed himself among an elite class of contributors at Pitt who are both consistently available and consistently ready to perform well on game days.
Maintaining that level of consistency is what has set great players of the past apart from those who have faded into the background. And with Horton now producing at a high level in concert with Champagnie, the ACC rebounds leader, and Johnson, the ACC assists leader, Pitt is becoming a well-rounded team that looks capable of reaching new heights. But much will depend on Horton’s ability to stay hot from beyond the arc as the season progresses and the challenges get steeper.
Challenges don't get much steeper than Pitt's next opponent, Duke, which is currently the No. 19 team in the country. Pitt hasn't defeated Duke since 2016, but the Panthers could be a problem for the Blue Devils if Horton shows up. That's because Duke ranks dead last in the ACC in defending three-pointers, allowing opponents to make 42.3 percent of their shots. Conversely, Pitt has smothered opposing shooters, only allowing opponents to shoot an ACC-low 23.8 percent from long range.
Given all that, another solid showing for Horton could go a long way for the Panthers when they host the Blue Devils at the Petersen Events Center on Tuesday night, as it could create opportunities for Champagnie and Johnson. And if the Pitt trio clicks on all cylinders against Duke the way it did against Syracuse, a major upset could be in the offing for Pitt.