Toney guides Pitt through tumultuous 2020

By Alex Lehmbeck, Staff Writer

Pitt basketball has sure had a roller coaster of a season thus far — the highs have been joyous and the lows devastating.

The Panthers looked incompetent against Syracuse Orange’s notorious 2-3 zone Saturday, like they could not crack a difficult puzzle to achieve clean looks at the basket. More than 16 minutes of the matchup had gone by, and Pitt trailed 12-30. They did not appear to be the same team that pulled off impressive wins over No. 5 Florida State and No. 25 Rutgers.

Then again, this team also lost to Nicholls State and Wake Forest. There are no obvious expectations for any Pitt game this year. The Panthers could not hit any shots at this point in the game, going 0-9 from behind the arc. Buddy Boheim, on the other hand, had already knocked down three long balls for the Orange by himself.

Finally, Pitt sophomore guard Au’Diese Toney converted a 3-pointer off an Xavier Johnson pass to trim the deficit to 15, while Pitt would slowly claw its way back to make the game competitive. The shot stood out as a much-needed boost from a player that has provided them all year.

Amid all the chaos in this Pitt basketball season, it can be difficult to appreciate the quiet consistency that Toney has brought to the court. Though he may not be an NBA draft prospect like Johnson or sophomore guard Trey McGowens, Toney has put together one of the most impressive seasons on the Panther roster.

One of the four commits in head coach Jeff Capel’s inaugural recruiting class, Toney came in with high expectations. Ranked as a four-star by, Toney’s commitment was huge for rebuilding the program.

However, Toney didn’t have a spectacular first year. It wasn’t bad by any means, but McGowens and Johnson established themselves as the primary stars. Although his excellent defensive abilities earned himself a starting role, Toney struggled mightily on the other end.

In his first-year campaign, Toney provided little to no use offensively. Averaging 7.5 points per game on 36% shooting and 24.6% from behind the arc, his numbers were inefficient to say the least. He also logged 1.1 turnovers per game, despite only producing half an assist per night.

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This year, however, he has shown great strides, especially offensively. Though he only averages 7.3 points per game, he’s doing so on 46.9% shooting. He has doubled his assist average to 1.1 per game, and reduced his turnovers to 0.8 per game. Toney’s assist-to-turnover ratio has gone from 0.4 last year to 1.3 this year. In 14 fewer games, he is four steals away from matching his last season’s total. He averages slightly fewer rebounds per game at 4.9, but that can be attributed to first-year Justin Champagnie emerging as Pitt’s best board man.

Toney has improved by taking smarter shots, instead of more shots. His 3-point percentage has improved slightly to 26.9%, but he’s taking nearly half as many now. That’s because Toney is doing most of his damage at the rim, either on drives or putback attempts, and not settling for tough, inefficient mid-range jumpers.

Of the nine players in Pitt’s consistent rotation last year, Toney had the second worst offensive rating of 95.3. Only Malik Ellison produced worse numbers, and he transferred out of the program after the season. This year, Toney’s 114.0 offensive rating is the best on the team.

An elbow injury sidelined the 6-foot-6 forward in their first game of the 2020 calendar year and the Panthers missed him greatly, dropping what should have been an easy win to Wake Forest at home.

Pitt’s roster is equipped with many skilled, explosive players. Four Pitt players have scored more than 20 points in a game this season on tremendous offensive performances. The problem is, for many of these great nights comes some awful ones. Champagnie, for example, is a confusing case of inconsistency. In his four best shooting games, he made 48.3% of his 3-point attempts. In the other 16 games, he went 9.8% from deep.

You won’t see many of the box score-filling nights from Toney that Johnson, McGowens and Champagnie have put up. You will, however, see an efficient performance nearly every game. By taking what the defense gives him, he frequently has a great offensive impact — all while typically defending the opponent’s most athletic player. Against Boston College, he recorded a season-high 16 points, shooting 7-9 from the field.

He might not be a high-flying, rim-rocking superstar, but Pitt needs Toney as a stabilizing force during a season that has gone in every direction.