Pitt men’s basketball poised to rely on veterans, returning players for 2022-23 season


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Guard Jamarius Burton (11) dribbles the ball during the Pitt vs. Minnesota men’s basketball game at the Petersen Events Center on Nov. 30.

By Zack Gibney, Senior Staff Writer

Entering preseason workouts, a palpable buzz followed the program for the first time in years. After Pitt head coach Jeff Capel lured top-shelf prospect Dior Johnson, a feeling of hope began to fill a program that for years lacked any sense of optimism.

However, Johnson is now facing charges of assault and strangulation. The program suspended the previously promising guard indefinitely, once again leaving Capel and company with more questions than answers.

Now more than ever, Pitt needs its veterans to take the reins and reestablish the program — both on and off the court. This season, the Panthers’ success is contingent on their ability to push through the adversity that’s plagued them over the past few seasons.

Entering his third year at Pitt, junior forward John Hugley is one of few returning pieces. Last season, he earned ACC Honorable Mention honors after averaging 13 points and just more than seven rebounds per game. Hugley is a difference-maker down low and can match up with just about anyone in the ACC.

Hugley also knows what it’s like to face adversity. In 2021, he was charged with two counts of felony criminal conspiracy and one count of receiving stolen property after an incident at an off-campus party. Despite having his charges dropped, the forward was suspended for the final 15 games of the 2020-21 season before returning for his sophomore year in 2021-22.

Since his incident, Hugley has seemingly shown both growth as a player and a leader, reportedly serving as a mentor for some of the younger players within the program. 

Hugley has a chance to prove his character development by helping reestablish a culture of accountability and success. In his third year, the newcomers look to “Big John” as a leader. 

So far this offseason, Hugley has shown signs of leadership. Hugley said he communicated with the team’s new arrivals prior to their coming on campus.

“We were talking a lot,” Hugley said. “I was helping them understand the system here and helping them understand Coach Capel and how he operates.”

One of those newcomers, graduate student guard Nelly Cummings, could step up into a leadership role. The Colgate transfer returns to his hometown with ample postseason experience after bursting onto the scene at last year’s NCAA Tournament.

Cummings said he connected well with the Pitt coaching staff during his recruiting window. The guard said Capel wanted to know him on a personal level — looking beyond just his on-court abilities.

“Other coaches were just getting to know me quickly,” Cummings said. “But Coach Capel was more deep.”

Cummings was expected to rotate with Johnson at the two guard positions, but is now expected to lead the backcourt as the presumed starting point guard. The two-time All-Patriot League player averaged nearly 15 points per game last season, proving himself as a critical on-court contributor. Entering his fifth year of college hoops at his third different program, Cummings can help show a young Pitt team what success looks like at the Division I level.

Graduate student guard Jamarius Burton enters his second season with the Panthers as one of the more experienced players on the team. After previous stops at Wichita State and Texas Tech, Burton started 26 games for the Panthers last year, averaging just over 12 points per game.

Entering his fifth year of college hoops, Burton can provide stability for a young Pitt team — both on and off the court. He has embraced the many newcomers, and said they have spurred the program in early practice sessions.

“Everybody’s coming in each and every day just looking forward to not just being there, but looking to win every drill,” Burton said. “With all the new faces, everyone has a chip on their shoulder and we all want to make a difference this year.”

Despite his efforts, stability continues to elude Capel’s program. Since his hiring in 2019, players have steadily departed every season and a constant flow of drama has contributed to minimal on-court success. Between Hugley, Burton and Cummings, there is hope that the Panthers finally have a core group that can help propel the program in the right direction.

In an offseason during which the program was desperate for change, Capel believes the coaching staff’s hard work has paid off.

“I thought my staff did an unbelievable job navigating and recruiting the transfer portal and high school recruiting and we were able to land six guys,” Capel said. “It was a lot of work … just trying to make sure we have the right guys who can help us going forward.”

So far, Capel is confident in the team that he has built, but recognizes there is room for growth. He believes that the process may take some time.

“We have to see. We are getting to know our guys,” Capel said. “Seeing us collectively together is still something we are learning.”

The 2022-23 season is a tipping point for the Pitt program. New faces will fill the Panthers’ bench when they open their campaign on Nov. 11 against rival West Virginia. Only time will tell if these experienced players can help propel Pitt out of the doldrums of college basketball.