TPN File Photo
The crowd on hand to watch Pitt men’s basketball scrimmage at the Petersen Events Center on Saturday afternoon was light, but still the largest home audience that any Panther currently on the roster had played in front of.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, capacity at the Pete was strictly limited and the massive roster turnover means that the only player who’s seen Pitt’s on-campus arena with fully populated stands is redshirt junior Ithiel Horton. But even he was ineligible to play because of NCAA transfer rules during the 2019-2020 season, which was the last time the Pete opened at full capacity.
Stony Brook transfer Mouhamadou Gueye got his first small taste of a Panthers game day on Saturday and noted that he and his teammates got an extra lift from the spectators in attendance.
“I think it felt good being back in front of fans after a year of COVID, games getting cancelled, quiet arenas,” he said. “I just think the energy of the fans being here and everything like that was really fun. I think we fed off that energy and just played.”
In front of a few hundred fans at the Petersen Events Center, Pitt men’s basketball played an intrasquad scrimmage and gave a first look at the 2021-22 Panthers. The Blue and White teams split the event, with White winning the first 12-minute game 27-22 and Blue dominating the second in an 18-7 victory.
It wasn’t the most intense competition, but it did provide some early insight into how a retooled Pitt roster will mesh. The Panthers have a host of new faces that are expected to play major minutes. They are also counting on big steps forward from players who were in more limited roles last season.
One of those new faces is Gueye, who played for both teams and was a driving force behind each of the wins. He headlined the day — showcasing his well-known defensive skills as well as diverse offensive moves.
The reigning America East Conference Defensive Player of the Year is best known for his abilities on that end, but turned heads for his scoring and ball handling during the open scrimmage.
The 6-foot-9 Gueye flooded the box score in the first game, tallying eight points on 3-4 shooting from the field and seven rebounds in 10:41 of action. In the second, he scored just four points and grabbed a single rebound, but lived up to his billing as a game-changing rim protector by recording three blocks.
During one sequence in the second game he grabbed a defensive rebound, ran the fast break himself and shook his defender — junior forward Chris Payton — with a behind-the-back crossover before nailing a mid-range, baseline jumper.
Gueye said postgame that he wasn’t seeking to prove anything about his game with such a well-rounded performance, but that it came naturally.
“I feel like I can do a lot of things on the floor,” Gueye said. “I think here, I’ve had the freedom to work on my game a little bit more, putting the ball on the floor a little bit more … There were times when I was looking for shots because I knew I’d be open … I think I just let the game come to me and that’s how it ended.”
In contrast to Capel-led teams of the past, the Panthers have good depth in the front court. Gueye and fellow transfer Dan Oladapo bring some Division I experience, Payton boasts tremendous athleticism according to his teammates and talented sophomore forward John Hugley showed some flashes of a blossoming offensive game on Saturday.
But Pitt will need to contend with some temporarily thin ranks in the backcourt. Following a string of player departures in March, then first-year point guard Femi Odukale had to fill the rather large shoes that Xavier Johnson left behind when he announced his intent to transfer.
Odukale was the assumed starter at that position after he performed well in that role over the final four games of the season, but head coach Jeff Capel said following the first day of official practice that the second-year guard will need to earn his playing time. Though that was before senior guard Jamarius Burton underwent surgery on his injured right knee on Oct. 8 and began a four to six week rehab process.
At best, he’ll be ready for the season opener on Nov. 9 vs. the Citadel, but at worst, he’ll need to miss the first three non-conference games against West Virginia and UNC Willmington, in addition to game one against the Bulldogs.
This opens an opportunity for Odukale, who will get more time with the ball in his hands in Burton’s absence. But Odukale did not take full advantage of that time on Saturday. He instead struggled in the two scrimmages. Odukale shot poorly, just 2-6 overall and 0-2 on 3-pointers and committed two turnovers to two assists.
But Odukale was lighthearted postgame, joking with Gueye and the attending media that he had hoped to show his improved shooting, and was sad that he didn’t get the chance to do that at the free throw line.
“It feels good to have everybody back to watch,” Odukale said. “I was kind of bummed out that I didn’t get any free throws. I wanted to show everybody, but it’ll happen eventually … I just want to show everybody that I got the confidence back, I’m shooting well, I’m happy every day I come in here.”
Horton, on the other hand, overcame a slow start in which he looked uncomfortable shooting and handling the ball and turned in a solid performance. He didn’t turn the ball over and made some difficult shots from all levels.
Best known for his 3-point shooting, Horton led a barrage of triples from the Panthers, who weren’t prolific shooters from distance during the 2020-21 campaign. That team was 277th nationally in 3-point rate, but this team let it fly early and often in the open scrimmage.
In the opening game, seven players hit from deep. Over 24 minutes of action, Pitt combined to hoist 31 triples — two more than they did in any single game a season ago. The Panthers started hot, making half of their 16 attempts, but cooled off in the second, going just 2-15.
Saturday’s scrimmage was likely the last time anyone outside of the program itself will get to see this team play until the Nov. 1 exhibition vs. Gannon. So for now, 12 minutes of intrasquad play is all the material available to judge this team against at the moment.
Odukale said that none of what he saw on Saturday came as a surprise and that his teammates have shown those skills off at practice routinely. But he added that this team is far from a finished product. He thinks they will be able to showcase much more when they return to action next month.
“We got beat up in a lot of hard practices,” Odukale said. “There’s a lot of energy, more fight. Y’all can’t see all the stuff we do behind closed doors, but [Saturday] showed some of the stuff we usually do … We got to keep some of our game to ourselves for now.”