Behind talented additions, Pitt men’s basketball has potential to end NCAA tournament drought


AP Photo/John Minchillo

Pitt head coach Jeff Capel works the bench during the first half of a men’s basketball game against Boston College at the ACC men’s tournament on Mar. 8, 2022, in New York.

By Richie Smiechowski, Assistant Sports Editor

For the first time in seemingly forever for Pitt men’s basketball fans, there appears to be more optimism than pessimism heading into the 2022-23 campaign.

This past summer was head coach Jeff Capel’s most fruitful since joining the Pitt coaching staff. Seemingly every other week yielded a new addition from the transfer portal or new top-rated high school commit, spearheaded by first-year guard Dior Johnson’s commitment in June.

It’s been six seasons since Pitt last made the NCAA tournament and nearly a decade since its last win in March. Once one of the great teams of the 2000s, the program has lost its sense of identity and perhaps a portion of its fanbase. This season will be a make-or-break year for Capel, and he knows that his team has the talent to turn the program around.

“If you look at it on paper, I think so,” Capel said last Monday when asked if this is the best team he’s had at Pitt. “But we got to produce, that’s the thing.”

Capel’s not wrong — his roster is exceptionally strong compared to the last few seasons. On top of Johnson, he recruited multiple players out of the transfer portal, including graduate student guard Nelly Cummings, junior forward Blake Hinson and graduate student guard Greg Elliott.

Cummings is an exciting prospect for Pitt’s backcourt. Originally from Midland, Pennsylvania, Cummings started his career at Colgate, where he averaged 14.7 ppg on 36% shooting from three. He led the Raiders to back-to-back Patriot League titles and nearly managed to upset No. 3-seeded Wisconsin in last year’s tournament behind his 20-point performance.

Johnson is set to partner with Cummings at guard for this season, giving the Panthers a massive boost in their scoring and playmaking. Back in 2020, 247Sports ranked Johnson as the  third best high school player in the country, and despite dropping to No. 51 in 2022, he’s still Capel’s highest rated recruit at Pitt.

Capel said Dior just “fell into our lap” this off-season, and that he was never really on the Panthers’ radar because of his commitment to Oregon. Apart from Johnson’s eye-popping talent, Capel had to make sure that he knew the backstory behind any possible controversy surrounding his new recruit.

“He’s talented, that’s the first thing with any kid,” Capel said. “I knew the talent, but it was questions about all the other things, why have you been at so many different schools, why has there been so much movement… trying to find out as much about his character as you possibly can.”

Johnson isn’t just talented — he might be the most talented player Pitt’s had in the last decade. 247Sports ranked him as a projected top 10 pick in 2020, drawing comparisons to NBA star De’Aaron Fox. His impact on the team, even just from a morale standpoint, can’t be understated.

This year’s team also contains established veteran leaders, not just talented newcomers. Senior forward John Hugley, graduate student Jamarius Burton and redshirt senior guard Nike Sibande will provide invaluable leadership to the newly assembled squad.

Burton will have his hands full bringing together the team’s new backcourt. He recognizes the talent that Capel’s brought on, but also said they’re not going to be any less aggressive or gritty than they were last season with less talent.

“We have new talent, but to be one of the best teams you have to be defensive minded each and every night because defense travels, especially on the road,” Burton said. “Being hungry, still having that grit to you to where you want to drag other teams into the mud and play our style of basketball. If we all can do that, I feel like we’ll have a different standing this year.”

Offensively, Burton had a breakout first year with the Panthers last season, averaging almost 10 points per game and finishing second on the team in assists. With Sibande making his much-anticipated return from injury this season, the Panthers have depth to spare at guard.

Unfortunately, the Panthers’ otherwise perfect offseason took a massive hit this weekend, as the team announced that Hugley suffered a sprained knee in the team’s first week of practice. He’s set to miss at least a few weeks, dealing a tremendous blow to the Panther’s frontcourt.

When he does come back from injury, Hugley will have the responsibility of being the only returning big man on the roster. The Panthers did manage to recruit twin first-year forwards Guillermo and Jorge Diaz Graham, as well as 6-foot-11 sophomore transfer center Fede Federiko, but not having Hugley in the lineup will significantly hurt their presence on the glass.

Before his injury, Hugley talked about how having shooters on the team will help his own personal performance down low, making teams unable to key in on him anymore.

 “You know, it’s amazing having shooters,” Hugley said. “Now I can get played single coverage, if teams want to play double coverage, I’ll have open shooters.”

Hugley was the Panthers only all-ACC player last season, being named to the Honorable Mention team after averaging 13 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. While Hugley misses time, junior forward William Jeffress will need to step up big in order to fill his shoes. Jefferess averaged just 3 points and 2.9 rebounds over 19.5 minutes per game last season. He’s also nursing an injury, but could be back by the start of the season.

For Capel, this year’s team gives him all the tools he needs to confidently put five players on the court and know that they’ll produce. They have depth at guard that will inevitably take pressure off the frontcourt to keep possessions alive with offensive rebounds. When Hugley comes back, he knows that the pressure is no longer solely on him — there are other players in the lineup who can come up with a clutch three or game-changing defensive play instead.

The elder statesmen in the lineup know that this season is their best chance to do something no Pitt team has managed to accomplish in the past decade.

“I’m just even hungrier [this season],” Burton said. “I don’t want to have another year of losing, with this being my last year I want to go out on top, and that’s just everybody’s mindset in this locker room is to make this year the best year.”