Johnson, McGowens pilot Pitt’s budding ballers


Knox Coulter | Assistant Visual Editor

Sophomore guard Trey McGowens lays up the ball.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

After the first official practice of the 2019-20 season in early October, sophomore guard Trey McGowens sighed heavily and pursed his lips, mulling the words over in his mouth, before carefully describing his sometimes sensational — but all too often disappointing — first year as a Panther.

“It was full of a lot of ups and downs,” McGowens said. “Just a lot of learning … learning how to deal with the ups and how to deal when things aren’t going as well.”

McGowens will put those lessons to the test on Oct. 30, when the Panthers take the floor at the Petersen Events Center for the first time this season in an exhibition game against Slippery Rock. But there are still questions that need to be answered before an opening night clash with Florida State on Nov. 6, left over from last year’s performance.

No one player could have embodied the first year of head coach Jeff Capel’s tenure better than McGowens himself. McGowens averaged 11.6 points per game a season ago, but that figure alone does not tell the full story.

His scoring average was inflated by multiple 30+ point outings, but similarly hindered by 16 sub-10-point performances as well. Simply put, when McGowens and the Panthers were on, they could compete with just about any team in the country. But for every cheeky win edged out by tough defense and grit, there were loses plagued by a sluggish offense and mind-numbing mistakes.

Pitt men’s basketball finished with a final record of 14-19 last year, a far cry from the Jamie Dixon-era dominance of this millennium’s infancy, but nonetheless a sign of steady improvement. Then, the offseason brought in a mix of skilled, versatile first-years and seasoned veteran transfers.

Enter Capel’s second recruiting class — first-year wings Gerald Drumgoole and Justin Champagnie, transfers Ryan Murphy and Eric Hamilton plus a host of other fresh-faced Panthers join the roster to bolster the glaring needs this team has.

Unfortunately, along with all of the hope comes hype and heightened expectations for a team that refuses to hide their confidence. A skim of the roster would indicate that the Panthers have filled many of the holes that plagued last year’s squad. But games aren’t won on paper, and NCAA Tournament bids — an explicit goal of this year’s Panthers — aren’t handed out in October.

And there are questions to address before the Panthers play a game of consequence and begin their pursuit of that goal.

Pitt fans, first and foremost, can rest comfortably knowing that the starting backcourt is set. McGowens will be joined by fellow sophomore guard and 2019 ACC All-Freshman honoree Xavier Johnson. Johnson requires no introduction after exploding onto the scene as one of the ACC’s most promising young stars.

Johnson and McGowens have their weaknesses, particularly turnovers and efficiency, but both of the players indicated in their opening press conference that a summer of work has prepared them for the offensive burdens they will be trusted with.

“I met with Coach Capel after the season on what I need be better in,” Johnson said at a press conference following the team’s first practice in October. “And one main thing was shooting and my assist-to-turnover ratio.”

Both Johnson and McGowens are tremendous athletes who can score in bunches, but for a majority of last season, the duo was Pitt’s sole offensive threat and would be easily suffocated when opposing defenses clogged driving lanes.

That is where a rebuilt group of Panthers big men will have to step in. Now there are no Jahlil Okafors or Marvin Bagley IIIs manning the front line for Pitt, but there are a variety of skill sets that Capel can mix and match to his needs.

Senior Kene Chukwuka and first-year Karim Coulibaly will provide a more hard-nosed approach. They both can rebound and play solid defense. While their offensive skills are relatively unspectacular, particularly for Chukwuka, who has failed to present much of a threat in his first three years at Pitt, both will benefit from the playmaking abilities of Johnson, McGowens and company.

And when Pitt looks for a more potent inside attack on offense, Capel will turn to junior forward Terrell Brown and graduate transfer forward Eric Hamilton. Hamilton and Brown both have extended experience at the Division I level and have shown varying levels of scoring ability around the basket.

Even though Hamilton’s counting numbers don’t stand out, his efficiency does. The 6-foot-9 transfer from UNC Greensboro averaged only 6.3 points per game last season, but shot 59% from the field in 16.3 minutes per game.

Similarly, Brown showed flashes of polish and grace on the offensive end. Against Syracuse this past February, Brown posted a season-high 16 points on 8-13 shooting, which he achieved through a mix of beautiful alley-oops and confident post moves. But the seminal question for Brown is whether or not he can improve his motor and play with the kind of energy that made him not just a consistent threat to score, but also one of the ACC’s best shot-blockers.

In addition to bigs who can occupy opposing defenders, Capel and his staff made sure to improve on the lack of efficient shooting his team experienced. They did just that in adding transfer guard Ryan Murphy, a marksman who comes to Pitt by way of Charlotte, where he shot an even 40% from distance last season. That’s no small feat, but Murphy acknowledged during an October press conference that he won’t have to choose between padding his own stats and helping the team win.

”Well it’s obvious [Johnson] and [McGowens] are amazing with the ball in their hands,” Murphy said. “If I’m making shots that just frees them up even more because guys can’t help. And just even the threat of me being on the court, guys have to cheat a little more.”

Murphy will undoubtedly aid floor spacing and free up wings like Drumgoole and Champagnie, plus sophomore forward Au’Diese Toney to create offense of their own. Murphy will also be asked to share the ball-handling duties with McGowens and Johnson when one of the primary players needs a rest.

This year’s installment of Panthers basketball will be faster, more skilled and ultimately better than they were a season ago. Improved depth and experience will help them inch further and further out of the ACC’s basement. It won’t happen immediately, but, according to Murphy, his teammates are eager to validate the hype.

“We got something to prove, as a team,” Murphy said. “The rankings came out and we put it right in our group chat and guys are excited for the first game.”