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Jeff Capel faces personnel crisis as players depart Pitt

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With Xavier Johnson and Au'Diese Toney gone and Justin Champagnie potentially heading to the NBA, Capel may soon be back at square one in his rebuild of Pitt

NCAA Basketball: Monmouth-NJ at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The wheels were already falling off for a Pitt team that started the 2020-21 season 8-2 and had since gone 1-7 to even out at 9-9. But then everything fell apart over the last two days, as the team lost Xavier Johnson on Wednesday and Au’Diese Toney on Thursday. As a result, Pitt will have to close out the season without two pivotal on-court leaders in tow, and the future of the program beyond the end of the disappointing season at hand looks bleak.

Justin Champagnie, Pitt’s only remaining star, seems more likely every day to enter the 2021 NBA draft after the conclusion of this season, as he continues to rack up accolades and earn spots on watch lists for national awards. And there is no hyperbole in that assertion, as he has been included in multiple mock drafts and was touted as a potential first-round pick by Sports Illustrated this week. He averages 18.8 points and 11.4 rebounds per game and is the only truly consistent scorer who remains on the Panthers roster. So losing Champagnie, as it appears Pitt soon will, is going to hurt.

Should Champagnie ultimately decide to leave, Pitt would be left with Ithiel Horton as its top scorer. The streaky three-point shooter who transferred to Pitt from Delaware in 2019 is averaging 9.7 points per game, meaning the team would have no double-figure scorers to turn to, at least as things stand, moving forward. And the next-best contributor behind Horton is Abdoul Karim Coulibaly, a developing center who scores 5.4 points per game.

No other Pitt players averaging five points per game or more are currently available, as John Hugley, who averaged 5.1 points per game this season, was suspended indefinitely as a result of his involvement in the theft of a car. Femi Odukale, who will step in for Johnson at point guard, has averaged 4.8 points per game this season and will likely improve on that with more floor time. But the pressure will be on for him to fill the void left by Johnson’s exit.

The panic for the Pitt faithful should begin to set in when they look forward, though, as Pitt is the only program in the ACC that has yet to land a single 2021 recruit. The program also lacks any 2022 recruits, and efforts were certainly expended to bring in young talent, as the team had landed a pledge from 2022 blue-chip point guard and Pittsburgh native Jalen Hood-Schifino. But he decommitted in 2020.

Now, the program is left with no elite talent to lean on in the future — provided Champagnie does not return — and virtually no time to acquire any, as only nine of the top 100 recruits in the 2021 class, as listed by Rivals, have yet to commit to a program. With that said, Pitt has offered five-star shooting guard Trevor Keels, five-star center Efton Reid and four-star center Charles Bediako, all of whom are top-100 recruits who are still undecided. But Pitt does not appear to be in a strong position to land any of them and may well pursue less-heralded recruits in addition to recruiting transfers.

In fact, the effort to land transfers is already underway, as Pitt recently contacted FIU transfer Antonio Daye Jr. But the point guard is coveted by no less than 20 teams, including several high-major programs in better standing than Pitt. As a result, Pitt may find itself to be a long shot in his recruitment, and that could prove to be a recurring theme as Jeff Capel and his staff attempt to navigate this chaotic period of transition from Pitt’s big three.