As Collier commits, expectations rise for Pitt basketball’s veterans


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Xavier Johnson stood out among Pitt’s 2018 recruits, but his next steps are uncertain.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Pitt basketball head coach Jeff Capel added the first member of the 2020 recruiting class on Monday night. Noah Collier, a 6-foot-7 power forward from Norristown, Pennsylvania, is rated as a three-star recruit and the No. 3 player in the state.

Collier is a prospect built in the mold of Jamie Dixon teams past — an athletic, tough inside scorer with long arms that hails from just outside of Philadelphia. But he joins a Pitt team that built its reputation on tenacious defense, so he will have to adopt an even more Dixon-style approach to his game.

Obviously, this year’s team has been injected with greater offensive talent, but don’t expect Capel to stray from the scrappy, underdog, everything-earned-nothing-given attitude that he instilled in last year’s squad — defense will be paramount once again.

And while he is listed as a power forward, Collier’s somewhat undersized at his position. At 200 pounds, he will have to add weight to his thin frame and be ready to bang around in the post with bigger, stronger ACC big men.

No matter his height, weight or position, Collier will take up a roster spot next year. According to Pitt players, he won’t be the only newcomer, which leaves Capel and his players with math to do and decisions to make.

With the addition of walk-on sophomore guard Chayce Smith, Pitt’s 2019 roster is full, but only uses 10 of their 13 NCAA allotted scholarships. And of those 10 scholarships, only two are taken by players who are entering their final year at Pitt.

Senior forward Kene Chukwuka and walk-on Anthony Starzynski, along with graduate transfer forward Eric Hamilton, are the only players on Pitt’s 2019 roster guaranteed not to return next year. For those keeping score at home, that leaves four scholarships for only two open roster spots in 2020-2021 after adding Collier.

Pitt has been linked to as many as seven recruits ranked in Rivals150. Right now, the Panthers simply don’t have room to add everyone they’re pursuing.

That said, college basketball is volatile and as with every season that passes, the saturation of young talent only increases. Players transfer and there is turnover on teams of all quality. The Panthers will be no exception, which begs the question: what kind of attrition will Pitt suffer and who will fill those spots?

Right now, Pitt is considered the favorite for 2020 combo guard R.J. Davis, a four-star recruit and the No. 1 player in New York state. Davis holds offers from Georgetown, North Carolina and Kansas, among others, and his decision will hint at what sophomore guard Xavier Johnson’s next move is.

Johnson was the quietest of Pitt’s three 2018 recruits, but quickly established himself as one of the ACC’s up-and-coming stars. He was named to the All-Freshman team and even found himself mentioned as one of 2020’s best NBA prospects. Johnson is raw, but his speed, athleticism and youth will make him a tantalizing project for NBA scouts come next summer. 

Johnson has made no mention of his plans beyond this season, but if Davis commits to Pitt, it could likely be because Johnson plans to move on sooner rather than later, opening up playing time at point guard.

Johnson’s classmate, sophomore forward AuDiese Toney, might not be as lucky. Toney could find himself on the outside looking in, as the number of wings pile up on Pitt’s roster.

Because of Pitt’s lack of size last year, Toney was forced to play out of position, with Capel opting to use him as more of a power forward that defended post players and primarily rebounded. That moved him from a more familiar offensive alignment on the wings to down inside the paint.

Pitt did add some reinforcements to their frontcourt in the offseason in first-year forward Karim Coulibaly and graduate transfer forward Eric Hamilton, but whether Toney is able to find playing time at the right position will determine whether or not he is overshadowed by the newcomers.

Speaking of post positions, junior forward Terrell Brown is another Panther that could potentially find himself at another program by season’s end. The 6-foot-10 Brown showed flashes of tremendous athleticism, but has also been prone to have a low motor and drop passes during his time at Pitt.

Brown has the potential to be one of the ACC’s leading shot blockers and an effective target for Johnson and the rest of the backcourt to find for easy buckets around the rim. But Brown’s consistency and night-in night-out effort will determine whether he too is pushed out by the youth movement.

These are good problems for Capel and his staff to have. A stroll down the roster showcases NCAA tournament potential for a team with NCAA tournament aspirations, but Capel wants to construct a roster capable of more, and that will inevitably involve losses.

Expectations have been raised and now the players have to follow.

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