Well… This is never the article you want to be writing on a Wednesday morning in early November, before Pitt Basketball has even had its first regular season game. But alas, the college basketball gods have spited Pitt yet again.
There have been a slew of setbacks for the program, dating all the way back to March of this year when promising guard Trey McGowens announced he would leave Pitt and enter the transfer portal. Then, in the months following McGowens' announcement, the program saw the two other players in that once exciting 2018 recruiting class transfer as well. With Pitt saying goodbye to both Xavier Johnson and Au'Diese Toney in addition to McGowens, this put Jeff Capel and his staff in a precarious position. The trio, while often troubled in the locker room, looked to be turning the program around. In their second year with the program Johnson, Toney, McGowens and then-Freshman Justin Champagnie led the Panthers to an 11-4 start in the 2019-20 season, highlighted by a win at Chapel Hill against the blue blood Tarheels. But after a long and tumultuous skid in ACC play, finished with just a 15-16 regular season record and was bounced from the conference tournament in a 73-58 trampling by Kevin Keatts and North Carolina State. Following the season, McGowens announced his transfer to the University of Nebraska, followed quickly by Xavier Johnson and Au'Diese Toney, who opted out of the Panther's 2020-21 season on February 24th and 25th respectively. This left Coach Capel and his staff searching for more players in the 2020 recruiting class. On this current day in 2021, that 2020 class has shaped up to be encouraging. The Panthers welcomed back four star forwards John Hugley and William Jeffress back to the team this season and both figure to have starting spots and large roles going forward. However it was the one transfer that chose Pitt in that recruiting class that had Panther fans excited. Enter Nike Sibande.
Sibande & Pitt v. the NCAA
Nike Sibande, a six foot four inch guard, had played three remarkable seasons for Miami University at Ohio. Scoring over 1,400 points in his career at Miami, Sibande chose to leave the team and transfer to Pitt in June of 2020. From an ESPN article written in October of that year by Jay Bilas "Through Pitt, Sibande became one of more than 100 men's college basketball players during the current cycle who filed an NCAA waiver request for immediate eligibility. Especially in this age of the coronavirus pandemic, the majority of such waiver requests have been granted, but Sibande is one of seven players during this cycle to have his request denied".
The outlook for Sibande to play in the 2020-21 season for the Panthers was uninviting. Through documents uncovered by Bilas at ESPN, it was discovered that Miami had not supported Sibande's request to transfer. Citing a desire to play in the NBA that was expressed to the coaching staff from Sibande, Miami had chosen to not support his transfer request. This was quickly appealed by Sibande and Pitt in an attempt to allow Nike to play in the upcoming season. Again from Bilas' ESPN piece "The basis for Sibande's waiver request was the continued care of his infant daughter, Oaklynn, who has relocated to Pittsburgh along with her mother, and Sibande's concerns regarding COVID-19 on the Miami campus". Whether you believe that Sibande's reason for transferring was to be in a location that provided himself and his family better access to higher-quality medical care during a global pandemic, or that he simply wanted to prove himself on one of college basketball's biggest stages, the ACC, it is apparent that Miami had wrongfully denied Sibande the opportunity to transfer and be immediately eligible. Jay Bilas, one of the most prominent and powerful voices in the sport, publishing the inconsistencies of the NCAA and Miami University, seemed to help Sibande's case for immediate eligibility at Pitt. It was two months after Bilas' piece that Sibande was granted eligibility for the 2020-21 season. And so finally after a long battle of appeals and "he said, she said" between Pitt and Miami/the NCAA, Sibande was allowed to suit up for the Panthers.
What Could Have Been
Sibande took on a bench role for the 2020-21 Pitt team, playing primarily behind Xavier Johnson as one of the team's backup guards. However, it was the opt-out and eventual transfer of Johnson that provided a larger role for Sibande. Sibande, notched as a gifted scorer in his previous career at Miami University, saw success with Pitt in the games following Johnson's departure. He scored 23 points in Pitt's 70-57 win over Wake Forest on March 2nd, 2021 and 24 points in Pitt's lone ACC tournament game against Miami on March 9th of the 2021 season. Fast Forward to this year. With the trio of Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, and Au'Diese Toney gone and breakout star Justin Champagnie in the NBA, Pitt is staring down the barrel of another couple years of a rebuild. However you want to spin it, losing that much on-court production is a setback for the program. So Sibande figured to play one more year at Pitt, provide scoring, and replace some of the on-court production that was lost in the wake of the departures of the players mentioned previously. Sibande had shown a flash in the pan last season when provided with starting minutes, and had proved that he could flourish at an ACC program. For a Panther team looking to tread water in the competitive ACC, Sibande was a perfect fit. He would help the team win games in what is surely to be a down-year for the team as far as the standing are concerned, while not taking up a scholarship for two to three years. This would allow Pitt the ability to be a more competitive team this season, while still giving Jeff Capel and the staff a future scholarship and roster spot to be used to rebuild in the 2022 recruiting class and beyond.
And that brings us to today. Word came out from Pitt's closed-door scrimmage against Gannon University, a DII school, on Monday that Sibande had been helped to the locker room by trainers in an apparent injury. This led to reports yesterday afternoon that Sibande had suffered an ACL tear and would miss the entirety of the 2021-22 season. This is a crushing defeat for Pitt, as they watch their assumed-best scorer for the upcoming season likely end his career at the school without playing a single regular season minute. While nothing could have been done to prevent this, it is a tough pill to swallow for a Panther team that is entering into, yet another, rebuilding year. I'm upset, as many fans are. And this feels like another instance of the college basketball gods spitting in the face of Pitt. However Capel and his staff may proceed, the fight for Nike Sibande to play here was an uphill battle, and his loss is a gut punch for a team getting ready to kick off the season. Sibande's loss should provide Jeff Capel with a clearer recruiting picture moving forward, but doesn't help the team get better in the season laid out before us. As I wrap this article up, here's to Nike, here's to Pitt one day flourishing, and here's one last F.U. to the NCAA.
Much love to you all and H2P.