Lofty expectations await Hugley upon return to men’s basketball

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Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

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

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

The 2020-21 season went south in a hurry for Pitt men’s basketball. An 8-2 start was marred by a 2-10 finish and a mass player exodus. The first harbinger of Pitt’s changing fortunes was the suspension of first-year forward John Hugley in mid-January.

Hugley was separated from the team after prosecutors levied three felony charges for an off-campus incident from over the summer. He didn’t appear in a game for the rest of the season and ended his inaugural campaign having logged just 104 minutes over seven games. 

A past problem offset the progress he had made and adversely affected the team’s success. But with a full offseason under his belt and a clean slate upon which to work, Hugley is preparing to affirm the belief that teammates and coaches have always held during his sophomore campaign.

Pitt has not had a big-man like Hugley in years. Thin ranks of one-dimensional frontcourt players had been a glaring weakness of head coach Jeff Capel’s Pitt teams and Hugley was labeled as an easy solution.

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“[His presence] is different than we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Capel said. “He’s a wide body, he’s getting in better shape, he’s got really good hands, he has a really good feel, he’s a willing and capable passer and he gives us something that we haven’t had in the three years that I’ve been here.”

High school highlights depict Hugley as the consummate modern big man — a mix of agility, skill and power that made him a threat from everywhere on the court. As the highest-rated member of Capel’s best recruiting class to date, Pitt needed Hugley as a quick fix to a long-standing problem.

But Hugley’s first season in Oakland fell short of those expectations and ended more like a de facto redshirt year for the former four-star recruit — a top-100 player in the country and top-20 power forward in the country according to 247Sports’ class of 2020 rankings

It took Hugley a while to adjust to the college game, but he was beginning to find his stride over a couple of ACC games that preceded his suspension. In two games against Miami and Louisville, Hugley averaged 8 points and 3.5 rebounds in 18.5 minutes per game — not gaudy numbers by any means — but nevertheless a sign that the young forward was picking up steam and carving out his own role amid a veteran frontcourt.

Then the suspension hit.

Prosecutors charged Hugley on Jan. 14 with two counts of criminal conspiracy and one count of receiving stolen property for a July 2020 incident involving a Chevy Malibu that went missing from Coltart Avenue in Oakland.

His immense talent, the expectations that it brought and the role that he was carving out among a veteran frontcourt were all abruptly put on hold. An incident from the summer before his already odd and disjointed first year as a Panther undid months of preparation.

Hugley was frustrated, but bided his time. During his five months away from the program, Hugley focused on himself, but never felt lonely or disconnected from the game or his teammates. 

He said he diverted newly found spare time to his classes and solo workouts of push ups and sit ups in his room. Hugley also split the semester between Oakland and his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, leaning on family and friends while mixing in workouts with his high school coach and mentor, Chet Mason.

He watched Pitt’s games on television, irked that he was sitting at home instead of helping his team win. But Hugley’s patience helped him survive the frustration.

“Of course it was frustrating but it’s all about the bounce back,” Hugley said.

And he did bounce back. After prosecutors reduced the charges in early May, Capel reinstated Hugley and said he’s been “terrific” since rejoining the team.

Hugley came to Oakland as part of a deep and talented recruiting class, one that fellow 2020 recruit and sophomore guard Femi Odukale said is just now reaching another level of togetherness as they move past a first-year underscored by a global pandemic.

He was only able to text with his close friends, like recruiting classmate Noah Collier last year, but is back at a time when the rest of his recruiting class is just beginning to figure out campus themselves.

“COVID year, we couldn’t really go outside, so we just went to each others’ rooms and played games and talked to each other,” Odukale said after an intra-squad scrimmage on Oct. 9. “So we always had a feel. But now we’re always walking to class together, talking to each other, making sure we have each others’ back.”

Through limited looks at this team in live action, Hugley has played like a focal point of the offense.

During a period of five-on-five action in an open practice on Sept. 30, he stepped out towards the perimeter, passing and shooting jump shots and handling the ball more frequently than he did as a first-year. 

It was the same story on Oct. 9, when Pitt scrimmaged at the Pete. He only scored six points on 3-7 shooting but delivered three assists as well, evidence of evolving vision. 

In the exhibition game against Gannon on Monday, Hugley recorded the highest usage rate — a measure of how often a player is involved in offensive plays while on the floor — of any Panther at 21.7%. 

Hugley had to be active partially because Pitt guards were force-feeding him on the block, hoping he could take advantage of the size and talent mismatch. But Hugley looked uncomfortable, not dominant, on Monday night. The Knights frustrated him with double-teams — especially in the first half — leading to frequent turnovers and unsuccessful trips to the free throw line. 

Capel said postgame there’s obviously room for improvement, particularly in the realm of conditioning. Cutting weight while maintaining strength will be key, he added.

“There is rust,” Capel said. “280 [pounds] is too heavy. We have to work on that with him and we’ll help him and assist him with that. He’s a talented player and we need him to be a really good player for us.”

Hugley hasn’t seen real game action since last December. There are cobwebs to shake off and expectations to meet, but he’s ultra-confident that he will live up to them. After his teammates and coaches fully embraced him upon his return, Hugley is hoping to prove that their trust in him is well placed. 

Hugley admitted that, during one of the busiest offseasons in terms of player movement in college basketball history, he also had thoughts of transferring and looking for a fresh start, but quickly discarded that idea and decided to stick with the program that stuck by him. Now, he’s found a clean slate among his teammates and coaches. 

“I had that thought, but then it was like ‘Why would I give up on them when they didn’t give up on me?’” Hugley said. “So it’s all love and I’m just going to come back and work with my brothers.”