Column | Nike Sibande should come off of the bench for Pitt men’s basketball


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Redshirt senior guard Nike Sibande (22) dribbles the ball down the court during the Pitt vs. Gannon men’s basketball exhibition game on Nov. 1, 2021.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

The sixth man in basketball is typically a player that is on the cusp of playing in the starting lineup. Instead, the coach plays them off of the bench because it’s better for the team.

That description fits Pitt senior guard Nike Sibande perfectly.

After most fans considered Sibande a near-lock to start this season, he came off the bench in the Panthers’ exhibition against Clarion. Sibande is working back from a torn ACL injury that he suffered in an exhibition game against Gannon last season. 

The move to bring Sibande off the bench is likely a strategy to ease him back into action before inserting him into the starting lineup later in the season. Or the Panthers could move him into the role permanently because of the benefits he could provide the role. 

The thought of Sibande starting alongside Pitt senior guards — Jamarius Burton and Nelly Cummings — in the backcourt sounds like a perfect match. Every player is experienced and all of them can create their own shots, which is a big deal considering the Panthers have struggled to create shots in previous seasons.

But the idea of Sibande coming off the bench might be an even better one. 

If Sibande started alongside Burton and Cummings, Pitt wouldn’t have a ball handler they can bring in off the bench. In this scenario, senior Greg Elliott is the only guard in the rotation that comes off the bench. Elliott is an excellent shooter, but he isn’t a shot creator or a primary ball handler. 

Of course, the Panthers could just stagger minutes and have Burton, Sibande or Cummings play with the bench unit. But at some point you need somebody to step up and lead the bench unit. 

Capel should use Sibande in that role. 

Sibande coming off the bench with players around him who can space the floor like Nate Santos and the first-year Diaz-Graham twins — Jorge and Guillermo — is a rotation that can flourish. Sibande is at his best when he is attacking downhill. With shooters around him, it’ll provide him with plenty of room to operate and generate good shots for himself and others. 

Sibande’s best games at Pitt are when he was a member of the starting lineup. Sibande shot 9-15 from the floor and 5-8 from three against Miami in the 2021 ACC Tournament — his last game action for the Panthers. Just two games prior, Sibande scored 23 points against Wake Forest. 

Sibande started both games.

So why change it up when it seems like he performs better as a starter?

That Panthers team needed Sibande to start — they didn’t have a deep rotation and they just didn’t have players that could create their own shots. But this year’s roster is different. They are deeper and have a good group of guards. 

Sibande started 94 games at Miami Ohio and was consistently one of the best scorers in the MAC — averaging 18 points per game or more in three straight seasons. He can clearly cut it as a starter.

But sometimes you need to do what is best for the team. In the NBA, Tyler Herro came off the bench and averaged 20.7 points per game for the Miami Heat, winning Sixth Man of the Year honors. Herro led the Heat in points per game, and was obviously talented enough to start, but Miami valued his spark off the bench. 

Herro didn’t complain about his role as sixth man.

“The really good teams, everyone stars in their role,” Herro said. 

That’s the type of mentality the Panthers — who the media predicted to finish No. 14 in the ACC — need to embrace if they want to shock some people and make noise this season. 

While Pitt will lose some shot creation with Elliott starting over Sibande, the Marquette transfer will provide spacing and be an anchor defensively. Sibande will keep the bench unit afloat with shooters around him. If Pitt wants to take the next step this season, they need production off their bench. 

Sibande will provide that in a big way.