McGowens, Panthers poised to take next step


Knox Coulter | Assistant Visual Editor

Trey McGowens (2) was the highest-rated player from head coach Jeff Capel’s first recruiting class

By Kyle Saxon, Staff Writer

Sophomore guard Trey McGowens sat down in the newly minted Pitt Studios last Thursday, practice jersey draped around his neck, and began the first press conference of his second year with a pleasant but unsurprising statement.

“I felt like this summer I worked harder than I’ve ever worked before,” McGowens said. “I’m more confident with my shot, a better leader, a better talker. I just got better.”

McGowens’ message was what the entire Pitt men’s basketball program has preached since the ouster of maligned former head coach Kevin Stallings and the hiring of current head coach Jeff Capel: to rebuild this program, they need to improve at every opportunity.

Capel began using #ZooEra in the early days of his tenure as head coach, because that’s what Pitt needed — to turn the page from a historically depressing and demoralizing era of Pitt basketball.

And just like Capel promised, last season marked the start of a new era for Pitt basketball. Capel immediately put his seasoned recruiting and development abilities on display, and had the Panthers playing a more up-tempo, exciting brand of basketball. In Capel’s first year, Pitt improved by six wins, four of them against conference opponents, from its historically poor 2017-18 season.

The Panthers enter the 2019-20 campaign coming off of a 14-19 season in which they finished tied for 14th in the ACC. Though their exponential progress may not be fully reflected by their record, everyone in and around the program feels this team can do big things this season.

The focus of last year’s team was its highly touted newcomers: Jeff Capel’s trio of four-star first-year players. This year, the spotlight will be on those same players, now in a new role as veterans and leaders. Their development on and off the court will make or break this basketball team this season.

Sophomore guard Trey McGowens is ready to embrace that role — and as the highest-rated player of Capel’s first recruiting class, he showed glimpses last year that he can handle the pressure and expectations that come with stardom.

“I always try to lead by example, but now I have to be more vocal,” McGowens said. “If one of the younger guys is getting down, or misses a couple shots, you know, that’s something I kind of experienced last year. Knowing how that felt, I just gotta be able to pick them up.”

The South Carolina native averaged 11.6 points per game as a first-year, a middling figure that doesn’t accurately tell the story of his highs and lows during his first year. McGowens had some quiet games and seemed to lack confidence for stretches throughout ACC play, but he appears poised to use what he’s learned from that experience to progress as a player and leader.

“[Last season] was a lot of ups and downs. A lot of learning … I just learned I need to be level-headed. It just comes with maturity,” McGowens said.

During those ups, however, McGowens could be found flying through the air for posterizing dunks and acrobatic finishes through contact. The explosive combo guard tallied 33 points in a win over Louisville — the program’s first conference win in over a year — as well as 30 points in an upset of No. 13 Florida State, and 26 points in Pitt’s ACC tournament win over Boston College.

The Panthers were 8-2 when McGowens led the team in scoring, 4-2 in ACC play.

His athleticism translates to the defensive end as well, and he prides himself on lockdown defense. McGowens emerged as perhaps the team’s best defender and sparked runs with his knack for forcing turnovers. Even through his periodic offensive struggles, McGowens remained one of the best perimeter defenders in the conference, ranking fourth in the ACC with 1.9 steals per game.

“I always just feel like if your shot’s not falling, you’ve gotta find another way to try and help your team win, and defense is just something I love to play in general,” McGowens said.

McGowens showed he can be breathtakingly spectacular on both sides of the ball. When he played his best basketball, the Panthers beat high-caliber teams, and could compete with anyone. But to take his game and the team to the next level, Capel says McGowens will need to show more consistency this season.

“Trey is as important as anyone on our team,” Capel said. “When he played well last year, in conference, we won. Period. So we need him to become consistently good… Trey showed he can be dynamic. I think the big thing with him is confidence.”

If McGowens consistently plays at the level he did in Pitt’s ACC wins last year, there’s no telling what heights he and this Pitt team can reach. Paired with 2019 ACC All-Freshman point guard Xavier Johnson, as well as exciting new perimeter players and a deeper, more talented frontcourt, the Panthers could find themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble this March.

“I feel like this summer, we all made a big jump. We’re not looking to rebuild this year. We’re looking — NCAA Tournament is the goal,” McGowens said.