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The Panthers’ up and down 2020-21 basketball season

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This season of Pitt Panthers basketball was one of extreme highs and dismal lows. It showcased the best player the Panthers have had since their move to the ACC, but also had plenty of lowlights.

The season started with a heartbreaking loss to St. Francis 80-70 and would mark the first time in the Peterson Events Center that the Panthers lost a season opener in that building. The Panthers turned things around in the second game of the season against Drexel by winning 83-74 and would then go on a five-game winning streak that would end against Louisville. The Panthers wouldn’t let that loss define then and would then go on a three-game winning streak.

At that point, Pitt was 8-2 and there was, albeit premature, talk of making the NCAA Tournament. And why not? The Panthers had beaten power-conference Northwestern in the non-conference schedule and had raced out to a 4-1 record in the ACC, including a win over traditional powerhouse Duke. There was legitimate excitement around the program.

The Panthers, too, had successfully navigated the season even with a knee injury to star Justin Champagnie. It was expected that he could miss six to eight weeks at that point in the season when the announcement came down before the Louisville game. But a COVID outbreak in the ACC would give Champagnie and the Panthers a chance to rest as they would only play one game between December 22 and January 16 — a 63-60 win against Syracuse on January 6. In all, Champagnie missed only that game and the Louisville contest before a surprisingly early on January 16 rematch against the Orange. Even with the injury, things were falling into place for Pitt. Champagnie dominated in that return, socring 24 points and grabbing 16 boards in the 20-point win.

Champagnie would score double-digit points in every game that he played in this year. He was the backbone of the Panthers starting lineup and would be in talks to be ACC Player of the Year. Champagnie averaged 18 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game this season, but he was not the only player to make an impact.

Xavier Johnson was another huge piece to the successes of the Panthers averaging 14.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 5.7 assists this season. Au’Diese Toney was arguably the best player after Champagnie and he averaged 14.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.3 assists this season. At times, Ithiel Horton was also a huge asset — sometimes off of the bench and sometimes as a starter. He averaged 8.9 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.6 assists this season, giving the team another three-point threat.

Unfortunately, the team’s early successes didn’t last.

The Panthers had a rough month of January by losing their final three games. Things would continue to spiral in February as they dropped five out of six. This stretch was the downhill spiral that caused the Panthers to fall out of contention in the ACC. As the season came to an end Johnson and Toney both announced that they would go into the transfer portal, taking away two of the biggest scorers for the Panthers over the course of the season.

This news did nothing to change the outlook on the season for Panthers fans as they would win only once more against bottom feeder Wake Forest and drop the regular season finale to Clemson 77-62. After that, the Panthers were bounced in the first round of the ACC Tournament by the shorthanded Miami Hurricanes, 79-73, to finish their season.

Overall, the Panthers finished the 2020-21 season with a 10-12 record. The year was not without its highlights — an 8-2 start, a trio of stars, including Champagnie, who was one of the top players in the conference. A win over Duke and a ranked Virginia Tech team also were bright spots of note. But overall, the year was mostly a dud. Several players, including Toney and Johnson decided to transfer out of the program. The team was under .500 overall and again under .500 in the ACC. Champagnie could be headed for an early exit to the NBA and the team faces somewhat of a rebuild, even should he return, heading into next year.

With COVID, the season was not a conventional one. But after 22 games, it’s clear that it wasn’t a good year for the Panthers. Despite some positives, things most certainly ended on a down note and head coach Jeff Capel has plenty of work to do.