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The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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Opinion | Stop asking women if they want children
Opinion | Stop asking women if they want children
By Grace Harris, Staff Columnist • 12:19 am
Opinion | Long-distance friendships are possible
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • June 6, 2024

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Opinion | Stop asking women if they want children
Opinion | Stop asking women if they want children
By Grace Harris, Staff Columnist • 12:19 am
Opinion | Long-distance friendships are possible
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • June 6, 2024

Season Preview | Pitt men’s basketball looks to finally build ‘championship’ program in 2023-24

Head+Coach+Jeff+Capel+stands+with+players+to+watch+a+practice+drill+during+an+open+practice+at+the+Petersen+Events+Center+on+Friday%2C+Oct.+13.
Ethan Shulman | Visual Editor
Head Coach Jeff Capel stands with players to watch a practice drill during an open practice at the Petersen Events Center on Friday, Oct. 13.

When Jeff Capel was hired as the Pitt men’s basketball head coach in 2018, he set the bar high for both himself and the program.

“I stand here today honored, excited and ready to go — and to build this back into a championship program,” Capel said in his introductory press conference. “And I have absolutely no doubt that that’s something we will do.”

Over the course of his first four seasons at the helm, Capel failed to deliver on his promise. The Panthers record over those four seasons was 51-69, and they never finished with a record above .500. 

That was until last season.

Despite the Panthers having an offseason full of setbacks and Capel entering the season on the hot seat, the Panthers found a way to win. And they won consistently en route to a 24-12 record and a birth in the NCAA tournament. The winning didn’t stop there, as the Panthers won two tournament games before being eliminated by Xavier in the Round of 32.

Heading into this season, Capel and the Panthers look to return to the NCAA tournament, and are led by one of the key contributors on last year’s team. Senior forward Blake Hinson joined the Panthers as a transfer last season, and his impact was felt instantly.

The sharpshooting Hinson averaged 15.3 points and six rebounds per game to go along with 38% shooting from beyond three-point range. Hinson — a second-team preseason All-ACC selection — has stepped up as the unquestioned leader for the Panthers frontcourt and their roster as a whole.

Along with Hinson, Pitt returns junior center Federiko Federiko and sophomore forward Guillermo Diaz Graham. Federiko will spearhead the Panthers defensive unit. With 58 last year, Federiko leads all returning ACC players in blocks.

Guillermo Diaz Graham, in his first season as a Panther, averaged just 3.5 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. He showed signs of potential throughout the season, especially in the NCAA tournament, which gives evidence that he’ll have an increased role in 2023.

Senior forward Will Jeffress — the longest-tenured Panthers on the roster — joins the trio as a returning Panther in the frontcourt. But unlike the others, Jeffress didn’t play a crucial role for Pitt in its tournament run last season. Jeffress suffered a foot injury prior to last season and was subsequently sidelined for the entirety of it. 

After losing junior center John Hugley to Oklahoma last season, Capel knew he had to add to the frontcourt. Capel did so by adding redshirt junior forward Zack Austin via the transfer portal and flipped first-year center Papa Amadou Kante’s commitment from Michigan.

Austin averaged 14.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks last season at High Point, along with 33% three-point shooting. Austin adds defensive versatility and shot blocking that complement Federiko’s game well. 

While Austin will see instant game action as a probable starter, Amadou Kante will miss the entirety of the 2023-24 season due to a knee injury suffered in September. 

While the frontcourt carries experience, the Panthers’ backcourt lacks it. Coming out of last season, it seemed that Dior Johnson — a former four-star recruit for the Panthers — would make his debut as a Panther in 2023.

But after his arrest for aggravated assault last fall, he missed the entirety of last season. In August, the University announced Johnson’s departure from the team and from Pitt as a whole for undisclosed reasons.

The lack of Johnson, along with the graduation of Nike Sibande, Greg Elliott and first-team all-ACC selection Jamarius Burton, leave massive holes and question marks about the Panthers’ backcourt heading into the season. 

One way Capel filled these holes was by acquiring junior guard Ishmael Leggett from the transfer portal. Leggett averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.4 steals last season for Rhode Island.

Capel ultimately went with a youthful movement in the backcourt, with first-year guards Jaland Lowe and Carlton “Bub” Carrington likely seeing a big role in their first seasons. The duo of four-star prospects both had respectable high school careers in Houston and Baltimore, respectively, and are talented additions to the Panthers backcourt.

But in college basketball, experience matters, especially at the guard position. Time will tell how the first-year Panthers handle their big roles. For Carrington, though, expectations are high as he was tied for fourth for the preseason ACC Rookie of the Year award. 

Joining them in the backcourt is a very inexperienced group as well. Senior guard KJ Marshall only appeared in 16 games across his non-consecutive two seasons at Pitt. First-year guard Marlon Barnes Jr. and graduate student guard Michael Hueitt didn’t see huge roles in the preseason. 

Sophomore Jorge Diaz Graham — twin brother of Guillermo — played forward for the Panthers last season but spent much of this summer practicing with the backcourt. If Jorge Diaz Graham can effectively learn the position, it will benefit the Panthers’ backcourt. 

While Capel filled holes in the backcourt, questions still arise. The most realistic scenario for the Panthers is for Leggett, Carrington and Lowe to play rotating minutes in the Panthers backcourt while Barnes, Hueitt, Marshall and potentially Jorge Diaz Graham develop their games. But going from a first-team All-ACC selection in Burton to three inexperienced guards is a drop-off. The Panthers just hope it isn’t a large one.

Despite the questions in the backcourt, the experience of the frontcourt has most media outlets placing the Panthers in the middle of the pack in the ACC in 2023-24. On paper, this is the most talented Panthers roster in the Capel era, with four former four-star recruits and a reigning All-ACC second-team selection. 

But basketball is played on the court, not on paper. The Panthers must build chemistry and consistency if they want success in a loaded ACC. If they do so, the Panthers can finish at the top of the ACC, return to the NCAA tournament and continue to build the “championship” program Capel promised years ago. 

The Panthers host Pitt Johnstown at the Petersen Events Center for an exhibition on Nov. 1 before hosting North Carolina A&T in game one on Nov. 6 at 7 p.m.

About the Contributor
Jermaine Sykes, Assistant Sports Editor
Jermaine Sykes is the Assistant Sports Editor for The Pitt News. He is a part of the College of Business and Administration class of 2024 and is double majoring in Marketing and Human Resources Management. He is also pursuing a Sports Management certificate and an Economics minor. He has written over 90 articles as a member of the sports staff.