Column | Pitt’s short-term identity crisis threatens long-term health of program


AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Pitt graduate student forward Mouhamadou Gueye (15) and Vanderbilt’s Terren Frank (15) compete for possession of the ball during Wednesday’s game against Vanderbilt University at the Petersen Events Center.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

Back-to-back losses against Vanderbilt and UMBC have driven Pitt basketball further into the depths of college basketball hierarchy. The Panthers currently sit 199th out of 358 division I men’s basketball teams in the latest KenPom rankings. They are far and away the worst-rated team in the ACC and the Power Five. Boston College, the closest ACC school to Pitt, ranks 65 spots ahead at 134 and the closest Power Five team, Georgia, falls in at 172. 

At 2-4, and with games against Minnesota, Virginia and St. John’s on deck before ACC play begins in earnest, the Panthers appear to be in for a long season.

Identity crisis 

The player attrition Pitt that suffered months ago is still wreaking havoc on its present roster. With so much experience lost, the Panthers were already going to have to rely heavily on new faces to fill big roles. That was before they lost two of their top veteran guards.
An injury to senior guard Nike Sibande and junior guard Ithiel Horton’s recent arrest have forced head coach Jeff Capel to further shuffle his lineups. Following a win over UNC Wilmington, Capel said that his team is in an odd spot. With rotations looking so different from preseason expectations, the Panthers are trying to figure out whether those players available can fit into an old game plan, or if they need a whole new system. 

“From July until Nov. 6 or 7, we had a way that we practiced,” Capel said. “All of a sudden, a week before we play, we have two of our better guys on the perimeter that are gone. … Now we’re trying to figure out if we should still play the same way because it doesn’t fit what we had before.”

Pitt has lacked continuity and that has made it difficult to establish an identity. The consequences are apparent. Pitt has struggled mightily on offense, and on Saturday against UMBC, the team wasn’t even able to put on the kind of scrappy defensive performance that has been their saving grace so far this year. 

Nationally, the Panthers rank 296th in offensive efficiency, 168th in defensive efficiency and 327th in pace. Even their success is punctuated with cruel failure. The Panthers are exceptional at getting to the line — the fourth-best team in the country in free throw rate — but rank 341st with a 60.4% clip from the charity stripe. 

If Pitt wants to have any prayer of righting the ship, it needs to find some aspect of its game that it can count upon to be strong night after night. 

The big men are massively important

In the preseason, sophomore forward John Hugley and graduate transfer forward Mouhamadou Gueye were touted as a deadly one-two punch down low. Hugley has put up some gaudy performances and Gueye has shown flashes of the game changing player he can be on both the offensive perimeter and defensive interior.

Pitt senior forward Daniel Oladapo (4) scores at Wednesday’s game against Vanderbilt University at the Petersen Events Center.
(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

But more often than not through these first six games, one of the two has been forced to spend long periods of time on the bench. 

Foul trouble and a personal matter that kept Gueye away from practice in the aftermath of a Nov. 12 contest at West Virginia has kept him sidelined for stretches. Hugley has had his own share of issues with fouls. He earned a seat on the bench for poor play and body language in the Towson game on Nov. 19, according to Capel. 

The duo of Gueye and Hugley can provide the Panthers with a multifaceted front court capable of stretching opposing defenses on offense and protecting the paint on defense, but only if they are present. Pitt can exploit an advantage in the front court, but only if its talented big men get the chance to play together. 

Silver linings in short supply

Piled on top of the immediately obvious losses is a barren set of recruiting classes that hang over Capel’s head. After four-star guard Judah Mintz decommitted in early November, Pitt’s recruiting classes — for 2022 and beyond — have zero members. 

There are no reinforcements on the way and little for Pitt to sell young players on. It was no secret that this Pitt team would lose a lot of games. The short-term outlook was not sunny, but not nearly as bleak as it was either. 

With no talent awaiting in the pipeline, any hope for a brighter future at Pitt relies on quick and drastic growth from its young core. The development or stagnation of first-year guard Nate Santos and the highly-rated sophomore class of Hugley, forward William Jeffress, forward Noah Collier and guard Femi Odukale will likely determine whether Pitt can pull itself out of this hole or if it will only dig it deeper.