Column | Pitt basketball’s past struggles have become its biggest strengths

Sophomore+forward+Justin+Champagnie+ranks+first+in+the+ACC+and+second+in+the+entire+nation+with+12.4+rebounds+per+game.+

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Sophomore forward Justin Champagnie ranks first in the ACC and second in the entire nation with 12.4 rebounds per game.

By Kyle Saxon, Staff Writer

Last season, Pitt men’s basketball finished tied for last place in the ACC standings. Through 11 games this year, it sits in fifth.

Though the sample size is small, the Panthers’ 4-2 start to conference play is not a fluke. The team clearly made visible improvements in spite of an unprecedentedly disjointed offseason. While several of the same, nagging woes haunted Pitt teams for the first two seasons of Jeff Capel’s tenure, he has seemingly managed to flip the script in his third season.

Rebounding

For two seasons, the Panthers lacked an interior presence, and it harmed them immensely. While Pitt had a couple of individually good rebounders on its roster in forwards sophomore Justin Champagnie and junior Au’Diese Toney, the opposing teams frequently dominated the Panthers on the glass.

After all, it’s difficult for a team that ranks 345th nationally in defensive rebounding to avoid domination in that facet of the game. While defense proved the main strength of the Panthers in the 2019-20 season, their inability to rebound missed shots became a primary reason for their struggles.

But the Panthers have skyrocketed this season to the top of the national rankings in rebounds. Pitt ranks sixth in the country in total rebounds with 42.3 per game, as well as 14th and 25th in offensive and defensive rebounds per game, respectively.

Capel’s team has a clear identity –– it hangs its hat on the defensive end and on the glass. But how has Pitt’s rebounding improved so dramatically in just one season, to the extent that it has become a central part of its identity?

The primary catalyst comes in the form of star Champagnie. Champagnie ranks first in the ACC and second in the entire nation with 12.4 rebounds per game. While Champagnie easily led the team with 7.0 rebounds per game last season, there is no doubt that he has had a far greater impact this year. Champagnie possesses a rare combination of eye-catching athleticism and unbelievable positioning ability and instincts around the basket, making him one of the premier rebounders in program history.

But it takes a whole team to make the type of improvement that the Panthers have. Rebounding has likely been the primary focus of practices for the past three seasons, and the hard work behind the scenes has finally paid off in games. Pitt plays excellent defense and follows it up by making a concerted effort to box out and rebound the basketball. The combination of this willingness to rebound and having the best individual rebounder in the conference makes Pitt one of the best rebounding teams nationally.

Togetherness

On the note of concerted team efforts, each and every one of Pitt’s wins has been just that. The majority of the team has now played together for multiple years, and they now visibly reflect the message of toughness and togetherness that Capel has preached for three seasons.

Last season, it seemed at times the players on the court had more interest in scoring themselves than the team getting the best shot available. When Pitt found itself in a deficit, its stars attempted to will the team back in the game by themselves, which often deepened the hole.

Further than just the eye test, Pitt averaged 12.2 assists per game last year, ranking 248th in the country. The team has reached 16.0 assists per game this year, up to 51st place in the nation. Pitt’s uptick in assists not only reflects more shots going through, but an increased emphasis on team basketball. Capel often preaches the importance of playing “together,” and Pitt has done so tremendously this season.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this improved chemistry comes during Pitt’s performances when it finds itself in similar deficits to last season, particularly on the road. When the Panthers found themselves trailing early in the season opener to St. Francis, the same thing that would have happened last season occurred again. Players seemingly tried to single-handedly make up a double-digit deficit in one possession and lost the game. But as the season has progressed, Pitt has logged unbelievable road comebacks against Northwestern and Syracuse, games it led for a combined 14 seconds.

These comebacks have not only been Pitt’s two most dominant rebounding performances, but also its two most energizing team wins of the season. When the Panthers found themselves down early, they clawed back as a collective, continuing to fight until they ultimately prevailed. Watching Pitt this season, its fierce desire to win with and for each other has become abundantly evident.

Maturity

But togetherness ultimately presents just one component in the greater scheme of creating an excellent team. Maturity established itself as one of the agonizing woes of Capel’s first two seasons. Electrifying comeback road wins can’t happen without a team who attacks each possession with the same mentality, which is precisely why Pitt had none of them in Capel’s first two seasons.

While Pitt has built its identity on defense and toughness, it’s never easy to win a game when shots won’t fall. The Panthers have dealt with their fair share of slow offensive starts this season, but have remained in games with their defense. Players can easily hang their heads and lose confidence due to missed shots, but the Panthers have instead gotten back on defense and turned their energy and defensive stops into points on the other end to kickstart their efforts.

Pitt’s leaders have even taken on more mature roles when they come off the court as well. Champagnie, sidelined against Syracuse with a leg injury, surprised Capel by taking initiative during the break with the Panthers trailing by double digits.

“At halftime, after I spoke to the guys when they were getting ready to come out, he actually grabbed a couple of guys, grabbed the pen and went to the board,” Capel said. “I don’t know what he was writing or what he was doing, but he was talking to the guys about the zone, about some things defensively. That’s big when you have one of your better players doing that.”

Winning college basketball games with consistency isn’t possible without a high level of maturity as a team. Clearly, age plays a colossal role in this aspect of the game. As the Panthers have aged together, they have become more mature, their chemistry has built up and they have continued to improve in the areas that have held them back. While they still struggle to shoot from the outside, and could improve on ball security, they have grown dramatically as a team. Pitt has put itself in a great position to hold strong near the top of the ACC with the identity it has established.

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