Men’s basketball navigates frustrating second year of rebuild

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Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

First-year guards Gerald Drumgoole Jr. (4) and Justin Champagnie (11) celebrate after a 63-61 victory over Florida State.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Senior Staff Writer

As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts the entire world, March Madness fans across the country are suffering from withdrawal after the college basketball season came to an abrupt finish ahead of schedule. But the cancellations and adjustments don’t impact Pitt fans much, as the Panthers’ exhausting season came to an end the day before the NCAA’s did.

Oh, what a wild five months it has been. The young squad entered the season with high hopes of building off of head coach Jeff Capel’s first season — a year with many losses, but nonetheless a dramatic improvement from the Kevin Stallings era.

Pitt’s star first-year backcourt duo from 2018-19 of Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson looked to develop into possible NBA draft targets during their second year. Their leadership, immediate playing time for first-year forwards Justin Champagnie and Gerald Drumgoole Jr. and the addition of sharpshooter Ryan Murphy as a JUCO transfer excited the fanbase. An NCAA tournament appearance seemed a lofty but possible goal.

All of this preseason hype culminated into a packed Petersen Events Center for a difficult season-opening matchup against the Florida State Seminoles. Although nobody expected at the time for the Seminoles to win the ACC regular-season title, the game provided a strong, experienced opponent and a chance to start the season with a statement win. The Panthers fueled the hype even further, earning a nail-biting victory that came down to the final seconds.

The next game, however, would foreshadow the devastating inconsistency that plagued the Panthers’ entire season. Less than three days after the Florida State upset, the Panthers shockingly fell to Nicholls State at home, despite a 28-point performance off the bench from Murphy.

The fanbase’s immediate confidence officially disintegrated a week later in an embarrassing blowout home loss in the Backyard Brawl against rival West Virginia.

As the Panthers weaved through their out-of-conference schedule, the cohesive, disciplined team that fans had imagined seemed to finally appear. Impressive victories over Kansas State and Northwestern crowned them Fort Myers Tip-Off champions, immediately followed by a dominant win over Rutgers, who was likely headed to the NCAA tournament before the coronavirus cancellations.

But, you know the drill. As they steadied into the start of their conference schedule, the Panthers suffered a deflating home defeat to a weak Wake Forest squad. Fortunately, wins over ACC opponents like North Carolina, Boston College and Georgia Tech kept the Panthers afloat in mediocrity during a down year for the conference.

The glue keeping the Panthers’ wild season together? Jeff Capel’s gritty team defense. Although they made many adjustments throughout the season from man-to-man, 2-3 and even a 4-1 zone set, the Panthers kept most teams from achieving easy looks, giving themselves a chance to win every night. Their offense often appeared stagnant and discombobulated, however, suffering huge scoring droughts at inopportune moments of close games to fall apart down the stretch.

So what happened when Pitt didn’t have this strong defense to lean on? Disaster. Pitt ended the season on a seven game losing streak, wiping away any hopes of even an NIT bid. Call it fatigue, inexperience or even simply a lack of talent, but the Panthers defense completely collapsed during the last segment of the season.

As we learned earlier in the season, Pitt needs to hold their opponents to under .97 point per possession to have a realistic chance at winning conference games. In their last nine games of the 2020 campaign, including their two ACC tournament matchups, the Panthers gave up an average of 1.07 points per possession. With the offense still an abysmal collection of incompetence, they handed themselves loss after loss.

Player performances

At an individual level, some of Pitt’s players took great strides forward in 2020, while some retreated. Let’s start with the good — the emergence of Justin Champagnie.

The first-year forward didn’t even expect to play to start the season, after a knee injury at first appeared to potentially require major surgery. Instead, Champagnie played in all 33 of the Panthers games this year and arose as Pitt’s most trusted weapon.
Champagnie led the team in both points (12.7) and rebounds (7.0) per game, including a 31-point performance in his ACC tournament debut against Wake Forest. Many felt the ACC snubbed him from the all-conference freshman team, but his appreciation amongst the Pitt faithful is clear. 

Sophomore guard Au’Diese Toney transformed his game from his first year. Maintaining his defensive prowess, Toney went from a liability at the offensive end to a consistent, efficient scorer. After a slow start to the season, Toney finished with 9.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game, shooting an impressive 46% from the field. After only scoring in double digits on nine occasions last year, he did so in seven of his last 11 games of this regular season alone, including two 24+ point outbursts.

Holding the heaviest expectations on their shoulders coming into the year, Johnson and McGowens showed little signs of development from their impressive first-year campaigns. Both playmakers saw their assist numbers increase, but their scoring abilities and decision-making frustrated Pitt fans during the second half of the season. After both shot over 41.5% from the field in their first season, Johnson and McGowens were held to 37.3% and 36.7% shooting, respectively, this year.

While Champagnie’s value soared as the season progressed, some new additions didn’t live up to their expectations. Drumgoole Jr., whose preseason abilities earned himself a spot in the starting five in the season opener, essentially disappeared for the whole year, averaging 1.2 points, 1.1 rebounds and 0.4 assists per game on an ugly 18.4% from the field.

After his hot start to the season, Murphy appeared as the immediate fix to the program’s three-point-shooting woes of the last few years. His season began to spiral downwards after he suffered a concussion in January, leading to a slump the rest of the season that saw his numbers and playing time plummet.

Outlook

Where does this leave the team for the future? While most of the team’s best players will develop in the offseason, the squad will look a whole lot different next year, making it hard to project how next season will go.

Although the Panthers only lost one rotation player to graduation — forward Eric Hamilton — the transfer portal could shake things up. Murphy has already declared his intention to depart from the program, and it is still possible that others could join him.

On the other hand, Jeff Capel has arguably his best recruiting class since his arrival ready to come to Oakland. A team that notably lacks size and skill in its frontcourt, gaining three 2020 commits that stand at least 6-feet-7-inches tall will prove invaluable.

The recruit most likely to make an immediate impact at Pitt is four-star center John Hugley, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound center that can shoot and pass the ball. He has put together a strong argument for Ohio’s Mr. Basketball award, averaging 23.0 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in his senior season.

University of Delaware transfer Ithiel Horton should confidently step up to fill in for Murphy’s absence next year. Though he’s had to sit out this year due to transfer restrictions, Capel and his players have heaped praise upon the 6-foot-3, playmaking, sharp-shooting guard. In his one year at Delaware, Horton scored 13.2 points per game and shot 40.9% from behind the arc.

So while the late-season losing streak and COVID-19 may have left Pitt and college basketball fans with an unpleasant and unsatisfied taste in their mouths heading into the offseason, there is still plenty to look forward to for next year and the program that Capel is building for the long run. In the meantime, wash your hands, don’t touch your face and start counting down the days until next November.

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