Satire: Completely reasonable expectations for Pitt basketball

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

Pitt men’s basketball is garnering national hype for the first time since the Jamie Dixon era. ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas put the Panthers at No. 48 on his preseason rankings, while some have the Panthers finishing as high as seventh in the ACC and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.

This comes on the heels of a productive offseason in which the team pummeled some semi-professional teams in Italy, gave No. 7 Maryland all it could handle in a “secret scrimmage” and smacked Division II Slippery Rock in a preseason exhibition. All the while, Pitt’s new players impressed and the team did nothing to quell its increasing reputation.

With fans and experts alike one-upping each other with optimistic season outlooks for the Panthers, the question becomes — what is really the ceiling for this team? Well, this piece will go about addressing that question in the most sound, logical way possible.

And so, without further ado, it’s time to take a long, winding trip on the Pitt Basketball Hype Train. Choo-choo!

The hype begins with sophomore point guard Xavier Johnson. Ever heard of him? Of course you have. To quote one fictional anchorman, he’s kind of a big deal. Johnson’s apartment might not smell of rich mahogany, but he enters this season as the third-leading returning scorer in the ACC after averaging 15.5 points per game as a rookie.

Johnson was the only player in the ACC last season to average at least 15.0 points and 4.5 assists per game. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie recently projected him as the No. 44 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. As a point guard whose foremost trait is his strength and explosiveness, Johnson’s most optimistic professional comparison is eight-time All-Star and 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook.

On the other hand, that comparison is actually disrespectful to Johnson, considering Westbrook averaged just 3.4 points and 0.7 assists in his first year at UCLA. His sophomore numbers before going pro — 12.7 points, 4.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game —  still pale in comparison to Johnson’s first-year stats.

This can only mean one thing — Johnson is a better basketball player than Westbrook. It’s simple math. With that being said, it’s safe to assume that Johnson will roughly double his numbers across the board this season, flirting with triple-double averages and scoring about 30 points per game en route to a spot on the All-ACC first team.

Sophomore shooting guard Trey McGowens is the second piece of the puzzle for Pitt’s big dreams. He showed salivating potential as a newcomer last season, leading the team with 33 and 30 points, respectively, in wins over talented Louisville and FSU teams. When he led the team in scoring, the Panthers had an 8-2 record.

But McGowens also displayed a habit of disappearing for long periods of time, stringing together several single-digit scoring games that brought his season average down to 11.6 points per game. So, which McGowens is going to show up this season?

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

Well, there you have it folks. If McGowens is a man of his word — and he’s given no evidence that he isn’t — then it’s clear his inconsistencies are behind him. Assuming he simply plays every game as he did against Louisville and FSU last season, he’ll easily average at least 25 points per game in the nation’s most fearsome backcourt.

Running down through the rest of Pitt’s roster, it becomes clear that the Panthers might have a legitimate ACC Championship contender on their hands.

The team added junior transfer guard Ryan Murphy in the offseason, and he brought with him a reputation as a sharpshooter. He shot 40% from three in his first year at UNC Charlotte before transferring to New Mexico Junior College, where he once scored 46 points in a game.

“But the ACC is far better competition than Murphy has ever faced,” naysayers might say. Baloney, I say. Basketball is basketball, and it’s obvious that Murphy has mastered the art of getting buckets.

He instantly made an impact on the team’s Italy tour, leading the team with 16.3 points per game while shooting 50% from three — and that was against grown men who play basketball for a living. Imagine what he’ll do when unleashed in the regular season against unpaid college amateurs. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. Bet the farm on Murphy winning ACC Sixth Man of the Year.

Pitt added a second transfer in 6-foot-9, 230-pound graduate center Eric Hamilton from UNC Greensboro. He actually started his career at Wichita State, where he played alongside current NBA player and 2019 Finals champion Fred VanVleet on a Shockers team that went to NCAA Tournament Round of 32 in 2016. Some of VanVleet’s title-winning moxie probably rubbed off on Hamilton during their time as teammates, which bodes well for Pitt’s own championship odds.

Head coach Jeff Capel also brought in a stacked recruiting class consisting of forward Abdoul Karim Coulibaly, who nearly led his home country of Mali to a stunning gold-medal finish in the FIBA U19 World Cup in July, forward Gerald Drumgoole, whose 17 points were second on the team in Pitt’s Maryland scrimmage, and forward Justin Champagnie, who McGowens said impressed him the most of all the newcomers. You’re looking at a potential trio of ACC All-Freshmen.

Throw in do-it-all sophomore forward Au’Diese Toney, who led Pitt in rebounds last season despite standing at 6-foot-6, and junior center Terrell Brown, who averaged nearly two blocks per game, and you have a team that should be favored in nearly every game it plays.

With Johnson and McGowens scoring at will, Drumgoole and Murphy canning shots from downtown, Hamilton bullying opposing centers in the paint, Toney neutralizing the opponent’s best scorer, Brown swatting any inside shot that teams dare attempt and Champagnie and Coulibaly providing stellar minutes off the bench, it just doesn’t seem likely that Pitt will lose very often, if at all.

UNC might steal a game at Chapel Hill, and Duke and Louisville will also prove to be tough outs on the road. Worst-case scenario, the Panthers lose all three of those games and finish the season 15-3 in the ACC, flipping last year’s conference record.

With all the uncertainties life presents, it’s comforting to know with 100% certainty that Pitt basketball will return to the NCAA Tournament in March — the only variable is what seed.