After offseason from hell, Capel and men’s basketball begin reloading

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The reinstatement of Hugley — announced just last week — is the latest in a string of roster additions that have tempered the anxiety produced by a tumultuous offseason.

By Stephen Thompson, Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Capel’s offseason from hell began before the men’s basketball season had even ended.

It all started on Jan. 15, when first-year forward John Hugley, a centerpiece of the three-year coach’s latest recruiting class, was suspended indefinitely after being hit with three felony charges for an incident involving an allegedly stolen car in July 2020.

Then, on Feb. 25, with four regular season games and the ACC Tournament still remaining on their schedule, star junior point guard Xavier Johnson announced his immediate departure from the program. The next day, Johnson’s classmate, guard Au’Diese Toney, versatile defensive stopper and ever-improving offensive threat, did the same.

So began a mass exodus from the program.

Six scholarship players, four of whom started at least 16 of Pitt’s 22 games, from the 2020-21 team — sophomores center Abdoul Karim Coulibaly, guard Gerald Drumgoole and forward Justin Champagnie, as well as senior center Terrell Brown plus the aforementioned Johnson and Toney — have since left the program. Most took advantage of a pandemic-induced change to transfer rules and entered the NCAA’s Transfer Portal.

Johnson has since committed to Indiana, Toney to Arkansas, Coulibaly to St. Bonaventure, Drumgoole to Albany and Brown to the University of San Diego. Since it is each of their first time transferring, all four players will be immediately eligible at their new schools.

Champagnie, meanwhile, opted to forgo the rest of his college career and has invested fully in his NBA draft prospects.

The recent player attrition is not a problem solely for Pitt. Thousands of players across the country have entered the transfer portal this spring in a display of free player movement the likes of which college basketball has never seen before. But the Panthers have been one of the programs hardest hit.

A total of 56.2 points, 27.8 rebounds and 10.7 assists per game from last season’s squad left the program as the half-dozen former Panthers departed.

But the brutality of the last four months is reaching a merciful, maybe even optimistic conclusion. Because, while the program has suffered major losses, Capel’s latest recruiting has begun the work of rebuilding a depleted roster. Capel started reloading primarily by tapping the same crowded transfer market that took so much talent from last year’s squad.

The two biggest additions of the offseason so far — both literally and figuratively — come in the form of transfer forwards junior Chris Payton, formerly of Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, and Dan Oladapo, an incoming junior who has logged two years of Division I experience at Oakland University.

The reinstatement of Hugley — announced just last week — is the latest in a string of roster additions that have tempered the anxiety produced by a tumultuous offseason.

While suspended, Hugley remained enrolled at Pitt, taking classes and awaiting his trial. At a preliminary hearing on May 13, the felony charges against him were withdrawn and only a misdemeanor and summary charge remain.

Yet, the additions of Payton and Oladapo and Hugley’s reinstatement don’t turn the frontcourt from depleted to dominant. Payton and Oladapo both stand 6-foot-7, putting them at a disadvantage if — and when — they are matched up with taller ACC big men. 

And while Hugley has shown flashes of a domineering, inside presence, Capel said multiple times over the course of last season that the talented big man needs to improve his conditioning before he is ready for a heavy workload. The four months Hugley spent away from the team will likely not help that fact.

But despite the limitations of their incoming and returning bigs, the Panthers have nonetheless added talent and depth at a position of need.

Pitt also recently added some depth on the wings, in the form of 3-star high school recruit Nate Santos of The Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Conn. and Texas Tech transfer rising-senior Jamarius Burton.

With rising sophomores William Jeffress and Noah Collier — a pair of defensive-minded slashers — poised to take on bigger roles following the departure of Champagnie, Santos’ opportunities for playing time appear limited for the time being.

Unlike Santos, Burton’s odds of seeing the floor this year hinge upon the NCAA waiver process, which as teammate Nike Sibande could attest to, can be fickle. While most transfers this year will be eligible to play immediately because it is their first time doing so, Burton has already transferred before.

The veteran Burton averaged 10.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting 38% from 3-point range in his second season at Wichita State before departing for Texas Tech in spring 2020.

Capel still has three scholarships left to offer and, between remaining high school recruits plus a robust crop of transfers, there remains plenty of talent available to fill them. His work on the recruiting trail is not done yet.

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