The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

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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Chris Matthews poses for a photo at the Global Hub in Posvar Hall.
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By Anna Kuntz, Senior Staff Writer • April 22, 2024
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Pitt men’s basketball season turnaround should not go overlooked

Pitt+players+William+Jeffress+%2824%29%2C+Federiko+Federiko+%2833%29+and+Zack+Austin+%2855%29+at+the+end+of+their+loss+to+North+Carolina+during+an+NCAA+college+basketball+game+in+the+semifinal+round+of+the+Atlantic+Coast+Conference+tournament+Friday%2C+March+15%2C+2024%2C+in+Washington.
Associated Press/Susan Walsh
Pitt players William Jeffress (24), Federiko Federiko (33) and Zack Austin (55) at the end of their loss to North Carolina during an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinal round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament Friday, March 15, 2024, in Washington.

The 2023-24 Pitt men’s basketball season was certainly one to remember for Panther fans. Head coach Jeff Capel and staff looked to build upon the Panthers’ surprise run to the NCAA tournament the previous season and had the tools to get them there again.

Despite losing key seniors from that tournament run, the Panthers still had pieces in place. Second-Team All-ACC senior forward Blake Hinson returned, as did junior center Federiko Federiko and sophomore twin forwards Guillermo and Jorge Diaz Graham.

An impressive recruiting class aided the already solid returning core. Highly touted first-year guards Carlton “Bub” Carrington and Jaland Lowe made for an impressive backcourt. Other additions included High Point transfer redshirt junior forward Zack Austin and former Rhode Island standout junior guard Ishmael Leggett. 

The new and improved Panthers started with a bang. Carrington tallied a triple-double in his first game as a Panther, the first Pitt player to do so since 1998. The Panthers would roll past their first four opponents before suffering their first loss to Florida in the NIT in-season tournament. 

The loss would beget a slide for the Panthers, going 6-6 in the next 12 games and a 1-5 start to ACC play. The Panthers looked lost offensively as the still inexperienced Panthers struggled against a slate of tougher opponents. 

During the slide, however, a shoulder injury to Leggett prompted Capel to insert Lowe into the starting lineup. Lowe would remain in the starting five for the rest of the season. While the change didn’t initially turn many heads — as the Panthers dropped their next two home games — Capel’s gamble would eventually come to fruition. 

On Jan. 20, the Panthers pulled off a massive 80-76 upset over Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, led by Hinson’s 9-for-9 perfect night from the three-point line. Lowe would provide more validation for his starting role, scoring 17 points with six assists during the game. The win would go down as Pitt’s first Quadrant 1 win on the season, which was critical as the Panthers looked to fight their way back into the tournament. 

The spark at Cameron Indoor turned into an inferno, as the Panthers would go 11-3 down the stretch to insert themselves back into contention. Notable results from the run included a 77-72 win over Wake Forest and a 74-63 win over Virginia in Charlottesville that snapped the Cavaliers’ 23-game home winning streak. 

Late road contests against eventual NCAA tournament participant Clemson and fellow bubble team Wake Forest provided the Panthers with huge tests for their tournament aspirations. However, the Panthers ultimately dropped both contests, adding more missed opportunities that could have benefited the team. 

The Panthers entered the ACC tournament as the No. 4 seed and looked to solidify themselves as NCAA tournament-worthy in the eyes of the selection committee. The Panthers started strong with an 81-69 victory over Wake Forest, aided by Leggett’s 30-point explosion.

The final test of the season came in the semi-finals against North Carolina. Despite the combined 41 points from Carrington and Lowe, the Tar Heels held Hinson and Leggett to a combined 11 points and Pitt fell 65-72 to the eventual No. 1 Tar Heels, creating a stressful 48 hours for Pitt players and fans alike. 

Finally, Selection Sunday came, and Panthers everywhere watched as the field of 68 was revealed. As the show continued, the Panthers were not one of the teams that were selected, as the team finished as the fourth team out of the tournament. 

In the hours after the selection show, Panther fans and players alike may have felt a variety of emotions, from confusion and heartbreak to anger and bitterness. While these feelings are valid and understood, fans of the program need to take pride in the growth of the program and for the future of Pitt basketball.

Going from 1-5 in conference play to a fourth seed and semifinal participant is a remarkable turnaround and a good sign of the ability of the roster and coaching staff to navigate difficult waters during the season. The midseason hot streak brought back a lot of excitement and energy that Pitt men’s basketball has not seen in years and provided fans with many moments that they will enjoy for years to come.

While the transfer portal is still on the horizon, and the loss of Hinson will sting, Jeff Capel has shown the ability to add key pieces in the offseason. Not to mention, Pitt is likely to return four of its five leading scorers for next season, along with talented recruits Brandin Cummings and Amdy Ndiaye. 

So while the Panthers squandered a handful of opportunities throughout the season that will certainly linger, the program has greatly improved from its previous standing, renewed interest from students and fans and has built its roster with young and talented players. Regardless of the Panthers’ missed tournament appearance, they are set up for success and should be competitive for several years to come