Pamela Smith | Staff Photographer
During last Saturday’s game against No. 16 Florida State, everything about Pitt senior guard Nike Sibande was different.
His hair was different — Sibande debuted braids after sporting a fade for much of the season. His role was different — Sibande started the game for just the fourth time as a Panther. But most importantly, his play was different — Sibande, a heralded transfer from Miami (Ohio), finally looked like the steady scorer that he’s proven himself to be in the game against FSU.
After the COVID-19 pandemic and a contentious transfer process kept him out of action for 262 days, Sibande spent his first nine games at Pitt shaking off the rust. But he showed flashes of dynamism in his breakout game on Saturday that indicate his game is growing along with the comfort of a still-new home in Pittsburgh.
Sibande entered last weekend’s contest against the Seminoles averaging 2.4 points and just over 11 minutes per game for Pitt this year — a far cry from the 15.1 points and 30.6 minutes per game logged over three years with the Redhawks.
But against the Seminoles, he recorded season-highs in points (12), rebounds (7), shot attempts (13) and, most importantly, minutes (36). After navigating a season of pandemic procedures off the court and inconsistent minutes on it, Sibande struggled through his first nine games.
After the FSU game, he was grateful to finally see the floor for extended time.
“It was definitely interesting — just getting out there, getting more minutes, seeing things and just getting a better rhythm,” Sibande said. “I feel like once I just get into a rhythm, I’ll be shooting a higher clip. It was still good getting out there and get some good burn.”
Sibande can and has been forgiven for his relatively slow start because nothing about this year has been “normal” for him, even within the context of a season underscored by a global pandemic.
After transferring to Pitt, his request for an immediate eligibility waiver was denied by the NCAA. Sibande was one of the just seven basketball players who were denied that privilege. Of the more than 100 men’s college basketball players who applied for a waiver, why was Sibande one of the select few to get denied?
His story gained traction in national media and eventually caught the attention of ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. Bilas wanted to understand more about why the request was denied and reached out to people within the Miami program for information.
Bilas found inconsistencies between the stories Sibande and the Miami Athletic Department gave for the transfer. In documents obtained by ESPN, Laura Fink, assistant athletic director for compliance at Pitt, detailed Sibande’s reasoning for wanting to move on from Miami.
A letter dated Aug. 13, 2020, from Fink to NCAA compliance officials says Sibande had concerns about COVID-19 on Miami’s campus and the recent birth of his daughter Oaklynn encouraged him to seek other options. Fink’s letter adds that Oaklynn and her mother — with whom Sibande shares child-caring duties — had recently moved to Pittsburgh, making Pitt a more obvious choice for him.
“We ask that you consider this case with empathy and compassion,” Fink said. “Pitt asks the staff to look at the entire scope of this request and to consider the unique decisions that Nike has encountered as he continues his educational and athletic pursuits, and navigates the path of fatherhood.”
Miami Athletic Director David Sayler then sent a letter to Fink on Aug. 28, in which he responded to Pitt’s request that he and the Miami athletic department support Sibande’s waiver. Sayler refused to support the request, claiming that Sibande had indicated to program staff and athletic administrators that his intent to transfer was grounded in the desire for “a bigger stage in order to prepare for the NBA.”
The conflict was never wholly resolved, but simply passed with little commotion.
Sibande’s 262-day absence from basketball came to a sudden end shortly after 5 p.m. on Dec. 16 — one hour before Pitt was set to tip-off their ACC opener vs. Miami — when the NCAA’s Division I Council announced the approval of a blanket eligibility waiver for all transfers across all sports. Now the athletes who would have been forced to sit for a year after changing schools in the middle of a pandemic would get to return to competition immediately.
By the first media timeout against the Hurricanes, Sibande was at the scorers table, ready to put the public conflict over his playing status behind him. Whatever bitterness or resentment the challenges of the past year or riding the bench this season may or may not have sparked in Sibande are not apparent in his demeanor.
Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said in early December — just a few weeks into the season, but months into Sibande’s battle for eligibility — that the waiver denial angered him and joked that Sibande had shown greater maturity than himself.
“He’s been incredibly mature about all of this,” Capel said during a Dec. 7 media availability. “Maybe more mature than his coach … He’s been outstanding in practice helping to make guys better.”
Sophomore teammate Justin Champagnie picked up on the wisdom and serenity Sibande has gained from three years at a Division I school during games.
“I think, personally, by being around him and speaking to him a lot during the games he is a leader,” Champagnie said. “He’s a born leader by the way he moves, by the way he carries himself. He’s older, he’s more experienced.”
Sibande nailed his first shot in Panther blue, but from then on his play leading up to the FSU game had been somewhat underwhelming.
Of the 97 games he played for the Redhawks, Sibande started 95, played at least 20 minutes in 90 and scored at least 10 points in 76. He hasn’t experienced the same kind of immediate success at Pitt.
Entering Saturday, he was making just his fourth start of the season because of an injury to the typical starting wing, junior Au’Diese Toney. But in that game something clicked for Sibande. He looked for his shot early and often, demonstrating the type of aggression commonplace in elite scorers, but that Sibande had been missing.
To fully illustrate the return of his intensity and power scoring the basketball, Sibande completed a double-clutched layup through the contact of Florida State’s sturdy frontcourt defense for an and-one early in the second half. As the shot dropped, Sibande let out a confident yell and exchanged high-fives with smiling teammates.
Part of his struggles has simply been inconsistent minutes. Of the 10 games Sibande has played this year, he’s logged more than 15 minutes in just three. It can be a shock for someone who went from star player in the Mid-American Conference to a reserve in the ACC.
The talent ramped up instantly, and Sibande had limited time to adjust. But the more he plays, the more comfortable he looks.
Capel has advocated for patience with Sibande all season and on Monday, after watching Sibande recover a piece of his former game on Saturday, expressed sympathy for how tumultuous the experience of playing at Pitt has been for him so far.
“I feel for him,” Capel said. “I really, really do. He’s a good player, but his season has been so disjointed. I thought he did some really good things in the Florida State game and he’s a guy we think can help us as we go forward.”