Column | Frontcourt front and center in men’s basketball scrimmage

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Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

John Hugley (23) attempts to pass the ball at the Pitt men’s basketball practice on Sept. 30.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

After last year’s devastating roster attrition and turnover, Pitt men’s basketball is breaking in a lot of new pieces. How they will fit and perform when met with real competition remains to be seen, but an open scrimmage, hosted last weekend at the Petersen Events Center, offered a brief but informative look at the revamped Panthers roster.

Pitt’s frontcourt shifts from perennial weakness to possible strength

Anyone who’s watched Pitt basketball for the past few years knows that the Panthers have been desperate for a well-rounded big man ever since head coach Jeff Capel arrived in Oakland in 2018. Terrell Brown, Kene Chukwuka and Abdoul Karim Coulibaly were serviceable players, but limited in what they could do.

This year’s roster has bigs that boast skill sets never before seen in Capel’s Pitt teams of the past. And between sophomore John Hugley, graduate student Mouhamadou Gueye and junior transfer Chris Payton, the Panthers have enough forward depth to play around with different lineups.

Gueye, who was dazzling in Saturday’s scrimmage with 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in little over 20 minutes of play, offers a diverse skill set. The long, 6-foot-9 stretch forward showed off his ability to hit shots from distance, handle the ball effectively and block shots with ease.

A Stony Brook transfer, Gueye was the best player on the floor, not only living up to his reputation as a dominant defensive player, but showcasing finesse on offense that not many expected when he signed with Pitt.

Hugley did not post the kind of gaudy numbers that Gueye did, but hit a smooth face-up jumper for his first bucket, then a few minutes later drove baseline and finished a reverse layup with a defender in his face. Capel suspended Hugley after he was charged with multiple felony counts midway through last season. Ever since, Hugley had to take an arduous road back to the court. 

Prosecutors reduced the charges in May, and Capel reinstated Hugley soon after. Capel said Hugley has been “terrific” since rejoining the program during the offseason, and he certainly seems poised for a bigger role during a full sophomore campaign.

Payton and senior Dan Oladapo seem to be lagging behind in the race for playing time, but it’s early. Payton is hyperathletic, according to both players and coaches, and Oladapo’s experience could help earn him minutes, but both players will need to show more than they did in the scrimmage if they want to see the floor regularly.

Shooters shoot, but don’t always make

Pitt hasn’t been a good 3-point shooting team for about a decade now. The last time the Panthers cracked the top-100 of Division I teams in 3-point shooting was 2011, when they made triples at a 39% clip, won 28 games and earned a one seed in the NCAA Tournament. In the 10 seasons since, they’ve shot better than 36% from deep just once.

But they might have a chance to buck that trend this season.

As a career 40% 3-point shooter, junior guard Ithiel Horton is an obvious threat from distance, and if Saturday’s scrimmage is any indication, he isn’t the only one.

During Saturday’s scrimmage, Horton wasn’t the only one hoisting those shots.

Gueye took and made a pair of triples on Saturday, and Horton called first-year wing Nate Santos’ shooting mechanics “professional.” Senior guard Jamarius Burton has only made 34% of his 3-pointers over his career, but he shot 38% from distance during his final season at Wichita State in 2019, so the potential is there.

As a team they shot just 10-31 on 3-pointers Saturday, which is a stark stylistic difference from last season. A year ago, they ranked 236th nationally in 3-point rate, and shot more than 30 3-pointers in a game just three times. They started hot, nailing a combined eight of 16 attempts in the first 12 minutes of play, but tailed off sharply in the second, going 2-15.

The Panthers believe they will be better at spacing the floor this season, and doing so would drastically improve their scoring. Having multiple threats from the outside would help open up the interior for a Pitt offense better suited to attack downhill.

Filling the Jamarius Burton hole

The program announced last Friday that Burton, who was expected to spend major minutes handling the ball and running offense for the Panthers this season, will need four to six weeks of recovery time before he can return from a knee injury suffered in practice.

Four weeks on the sidelines for Burton means he’s back for the season opener on Nov. 9, but if it extends to six weeks, he’ll miss the first few non-conference games. That leaves the Panthers relatively thin in the backcourt, with sophomore Femi Odukale as the only true point guard.

Sure, Horton and senior guard Nike Sibande could take over some of the point guard duties in the meantime, but that is not an ideal situation for Pitt, who might be without Burton when they travel to face West Virginia and head coach Bob Huggins’ swarming press defense.

Senior walk-on Onyebuchi Ezeakudo played well Saturday, scoring eight points and knocking down a couple of 3-pointers while also recording three assists to just one turnover, but it is doubtful he will be tasked with a heavy workload in the event that Burton misses time.

Instead, expect Odukale to pick up where he left off at the end of last season. Over his last four games, Odukale averaged 35 minutes a contest in the absence of starter Xavier Johnson, who announced his intent to transfer from Pitt before the season ended. He averaged 10.7 points and 3.3 assists per game during that stretch.

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