Men’s basketball takeaways: There’s reason for optimism in Oakland


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Graduate student guard Jamarius Burton (11) dribbles the ball down the court during the Pitt men’s basketball game against West Virginia on Nov. 11.

By Richie Smiechowski, Sports Editor

Pitt men’s basketball is undoubtedly off to their best start since at least the 2015-16 season — their last time reaching the NCAA tournament. They didn’t necessarily start off slow, but in their last 12 games the Panthers have turned a corner and are suddenly tied for second in the ACC with No. 12 Miami following a 10-2 stretch. 

The Panthers are showing the college basketball world that they deserve recognition and delivering fans with a bit of the magic they’d grown so accustomed to a decade ago. For the first time in seemingly forever, there is genuine excitement surrounding Pitt basketball — a thought that at times seemed impossible, considering the last few years of head coach Jeff Capel’s tenure. 

Still, fans must keep their expectations in check. As promising as the Panthers have looked, there’s still a lot of season left. Despite not having a clear powerhouse, the ACC is strong top to bottom and is as unpredictable as ever. 

Even after their most recent loss to Clemson, there is plenty of reason for optimism for Pitt men’s basketball and their NCAA tournament hopes. Here are some of my takeaways for how they got there. 

Consistent grit; physicality

In the past few years under Capel, the Panthers seemed to lack toughness. Anchored by younger players with talent but not much experience at the college level, teams of old were pushed around by bigger, more physical teams. 

Pitt teams of the Capel era wouldn’t have stood a chance against teams like UNC, which feature several tenured players that are used to the pace of college games. Instead, Capel learned this season to lean on experience — and that’s just what he’s doing with his core of transfer portal difference makers.

Perhaps their toughest asset is junior forward Blake Hinson. He’s had some experience at the Division I level with Iowa State and Ole Miss. But this season at Pitt, Capel’s given him the opportunity to shine, and he’s seized the opportunity and then some. With his 6-foot-7 frame, Hinson is menacing as both a scorer and a rebounder and isn’t afraid of contact on the floor. He’s averaging almost 17 points and seven rebounds per game and is everything Pitt fans hoped for and more. 

What might be even more impressive than Pitt’s increased aggression and toughness on the court is their ability to do it without junior forward John Hugley IV. Since his emergence in the frontcourt in 2021, the Panthers have relied heavily on him for his physical presence. Now without him, they haven’t missed a beat, and it’s thanks to the additions of players like Hinson and sophomore center Federiko Federiko. 

It’s inevitable for Pitt fans to have the feeling that the magic could come to an end at any point — that the Panthers’ ability to wear down their opponents will eventually lose its effectiveness. But for now, it’s a massive reason why they’re winning and will be crucial down the stretch of the season. 

Guard play

As a playmaking guard, senior forward Nelly Cummings is a revelation for the Pitt offense. 

In contrast to some of their other transfers, the Panthers knew what they were getting with Cummings — a proven guard with NCAA tournament experience and success with Colgate. What they may not have expected was his ability to lift up those around them and make them better players as well. 

Cummings doesn’t fill up the scorebook — he has solid numbers, but nothing that jumps off the page. What he does well is playing with his head, finding his teammates in prime positions and scoring when it’s absolutely necessary. His presence is authoritative and something that the Panthers haven’t had for a very long time. 

In addition to Cummings in the backcourt, senior guard Jamarius Burton is still the strong presence he was last season for the Panthers. He’s always been strong defensively, but has taken a tremendous step forward in his offensive ability over the past few games, most notably in his 31-point performance against UNC. 

As a unit, you could put the Pitt backcourt against just about any team in the country when it comes to overall offensive, defensive and playmaking ability. They can do it all and are the mental and emotional backbone of the team. 

No more “same old Pitt”

We saw it with football last year, and we’re seeing it with basketball this year — Pitt, across the vast majority of the athletic department, is on a continual upward trajectory that isn’t slowing down. 

For the rest of the season, this team will deal with the doubters of the internet, those who think that they’re destined to eventually “Pitt” the season away. 

But this year’s squad, led by players with fantastic talent and the heart to back it up, looks like it might just be in the process of bringing Pitt basketball back to its former glory. 

Of course, there are still plenty of games to play, so much still left to play for. But the buzz around Oakland for this team is undeniable — maybe it’s not too good to be true.