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Preview: Men’s team can only go up from 2017

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Preview: Men’s team can only go up from 2017

First-year guard Xavier Johnson, pictured here in Pitt's Nov. 1 exhibition, finished second on the team with 16 points against YSU.

First-year guard Xavier Johnson, pictured here in Pitt's Nov. 1 exhibition, finished second on the team with 16 points against YSU.

Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

First-year guard Xavier Johnson, pictured here in Pitt's Nov. 1 exhibition, finished second on the team with 16 points against YSU.

Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

First-year guard Xavier Johnson, pictured here in Pitt's Nov. 1 exhibition, finished second on the team with 16 points against YSU.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

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Last season was branded as a rebuilding year for the Pitt men’s basketball team. The Panthers were due for a rough time, considering almost every player from the previous Jamie Dixon era had either transferred or graduated after new head coach Kevin Stallings’ mediocre first year. The new-look Panthers — composed primarily of junior college and first-year transfer students — were supposed to struggle, but the idea was that their young players would get invaluable experience for the future.

Instead, 2017 ended up more of a lost year than a rebuilding year. After senior leader Ryan Luther suffered a season-ending injury early on, the young Panthers struggled to compete and finished 0-18 in the ACC — the first time in program history that Pitt failed to win a division game. Then, roughly half the team’s production disbanded after the season — Luther departed for Arizona, first-year guards Marcus Carr and Parker Stewart transferred elsewhere and Stallings was fired.

At that point, it looked like the outlook for 2018 would again be bleak.

Luckily, athletic director Heather Lyke made the home-run hire of Jeff Capel — former head coach at VCU and Oklahoma, then most recently Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s right-hand man at Duke — in late March. Capel convinced five of Pitt’s eight players who requested releases to return, then went out and added highly touted guard recruits Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney in the offseason.

With his track record as a top recruiter, having helped land top talents like Blake Griffin, Jayson Tatum and Zion Williams in the past, Capel’s hiring brought a sense of hope to a once-proud Pitt program looking to return to greatness. Capel’s early work on the recruiting trail only bolstered this optimism, and reports that the Panthers outplayed Dayton — a perennial NCAA tournament team — in a “secret scrimmage” further added to the hype.

“It’s supposed to be a secret, so I don’t really want to discuss the personal, particular details,” Capel said of the Dayton scrimmage. “But the main thing I will say is that Pitt did well. We did well.”

While Capel remained purposely vague about the details of the scrimmage, it emerged that McGowens and Johnson led the Panthers with 26 and 19 points, respectively. This solidified the notion that these two first-year guards will carry much of the offensive burden this season, regardless of the fact that they’re both undersized players at 6-feet-3-inches.

“I think you can see them on the court together a lot,” Capel confirmed. “My hope is to have lineups where there are multiple ball handlers, where there is not just one. We have multiple guys who can initiate our offense from a defensive rebound that can push the break and do things like that.”

Pushing the ball quickly and looking for fast-break points was something Capel stressed through the offseason. Such an up-tempo style of play demands that players be in top physical shape, so Capel brought in strength and conditioning coach Garry Christopher to help with that goal. The workout goals differed from player to player — Johnson put on more muscle to get from 170 to 190 pounds, while senior forward Jared Wilson-Frame shed roughly 25 pounds to get down to 219 from 246.

For Pitt, pushing the pace is more of a necessity than a choice — the Panthers only have one player, sophomore center Terrell Brown, taller than 6-foot-9. To succeed, they’ll have to turn their biggest weakness — lack of height — into a strength, using their athleticism to beat opponents down the court.

“There are some positions, if you go by the traditional sense of position, that we just don’t have right now,” Capel said. “And so the thing I believe in basketball is you have to find a way to get your five best guys on the court, regardless of position.”

In the Panthers’ exhibition game against Pitt-Johnstown Thursday night, fans got a glimpse of those “five best guys” when Capel trotted out the starting lineup of Johnson, McGowens, Brown, sophomore guard Khameron Davis and redshirt junior guard Malik Ellison. Of those five, only two — Davis and Brown — saw court time for Pitt last year.

Ellison — named captain of the team — will look to lead the Panthers despite sitting out all last season due to NCAA rules after transferring from St. John’s University. The 6-foot-6 guard impressed in his first semi-official court time against Pitt-Johnstown, leading the team with 28 minutes played and tying with Johnson and Wilson-Frame for the team lead in points (14) and steals (3).

“You guys wouldn’t have that much of an idea of how he was from last year because he wasn’t on the court and in front of a lot of eyes, but he’s been that guy ever since he’s been here,” Wilson-Frame said of Ellison. “Even last year, him not playing, he was still a voice for the team and still led by example.”

Other Panthers to watch this season include graduate transfer Sidy N’Dir, who went to two NCAA Tournaments as a player at New Mexico State and quietly led Pitt with six assists Thursday night. Toney, a tall 6-foot-6 guard and four-star recruit, figures to give the team solid playmaking ability off the bench along with 6-foot-9 junior forward Kene Chukwuka — a returning contributor from 2017 — who led Pitt with six rebounds in the exhibition.

As a team, the Panthers flashed the fast-paced potential that they alluded to in the offseason, forcing 21 turnovers and scoring 23 points off those turnovers, including 21 fast-break points. They showed a willingness — and ability — to shoot from beyond the arc, making nine of 25 3-pointers. And McGowens showed some of the talent that made him Capel’s most highly-rated recruit, delivering a highlight-reel, and-one dunk on an opposing defender.

The Panthers dominated the Division II Mountain Cats, beating them 78-59, but the exhibition showed a difference in this year’s fan base as much as the team on the court. The announced attendance of 3,194 people marked more than 10 regular-season games last season.

Fans are obviously excited at the proposition of seeing a new culture under a reputable new coach with talented new recruits. But expectations must be held in check, considering the Panthers are still only one year removed from one of the program’s worst all-time seasons. No coach — not even Gregg Popovich, Geno Auriemma or Coach K himself — is capable of turning a team around into a national contender so quickly, especially playing in the loaded ACC.

Realistically, Pitt will finish toward the bottom of the ACC standings. They were voted to come in dead last by the ACC preseason poll, along with most other media outlets.

That being said, it’s perfectly possible that they leapfrog some of the other projected cellar-dwellers such as Clemson, Boston College and NC State. Pitt has an athletic and well-coached — albeit inexperienced and undersized — roster, and they should be expected to play competitive games with most other ACC teams, with the potential to pull off an upset against a top dog.

Even if the Panthers only win one ACC game this season, it will still be an improvement over last year. That’s the beauty of this year’s Pitt team — it can only go up from the disaster that was 2017. Unlike last season, the fans will cheer — not boo — when the coach is announced, and the Oakland Zoo should once again become a boisterous force in the stands. They’ll be cheering not just for this team, but for a future that finally allows for hope.

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Preview: Men’s team can only go up from 2017