Following a dreadful 2017-18 season in which the Pitt men’s basketball team finished 8-24, including going 0-18 in conference play, the program was in dire need of excitement and hope for the future.
Enter former Duke assistant Jeff Capel. In his first year at the helm of Pitt basketball, Capel assembled a team of young, exciting players and rattled off seven straight wins to begin the 2018-19 season. The Panthers finished 14-19 on the year, including a win in the ACC tournament over Boston College.
Now heading into his season year as head coach, Capel looks to improve upon the success from a year ago. Speaking with Pittsburgh Sports Now’s Alan Saunders two weeks ago, Capel said that he is looking for big improvements from the team’s youngest players last season. Capel mentioned true freshman guards Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney as well as fellow freshman big man Terrell Brown.
“I think all four of them can be a lot better, and that’s the goal,” Capel explained. “We need them to make a significant jump and all of them have the opportunity.”
Capel singled out Johnson, an ACC All-Freshman selection last season as someone who he saw a lot of potential in as a freshman.
“All of them at different times last year showed flashes, (Xavier Johnson) probably more but we need all of them to become consistently good players,” Capel said. “Shooting has to improve on the perimeter for those three perimeter guys, decision making, ball handling all of those things. We’ve been working on those since the season ended. I know we’re on the right steps, but I do think they all have room to make a big jump.”
Johnson (31.2), McGowens (27.8) and Toney (25.2) all played significant minutes as freshmen and will all have to shoulder more responsibility on the team with the departure of Jared Wilson-Frame who was a key player on the team. Knowing this, what could improvements from these three look like from a statistical standpoint?
Johnson was the Panther’s main ball handler a year ago, starting all 33 games at point guard and also leading the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game. Johnson showed to not just be a pure scorer, however, also pulling down 3.9 rebounds and nabbing 1.3 steals as well. Where Johnson struggled, however, was as a distributor, averaging on 4.5 assists to 4 turnovers.
Johnson will have to cut down on the turnovers while also adding more assists per game. As Capel mentioned, he can also improve his shooting as he shot .415 from the floor and .352 from beyond the arch. He took the second most threes on the team (105) behind only Wilson-Frame and that number only stands to go up in Wilson-Frame’s absence.
As a sophomore, for Johnson to push closer to 20 points and 10 assists per game he will need to turn the ball over less and shoot at a higher percentage.
McGowens started alongside Johnson all of last year and was a deadly mid-range shooter, shooting .468 from inside the three-point line. Beyond the three-point line was where he struggled, however, shooting only .327. This led to an 11.6 points per game average, good for third best on the team. Like Johnson, McGowens did more than just shoot the ball as well averaging 3.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals.
McGowens may be the one most likely to pick up where Wilson-Frame is leaving off. Wilson-Frame was the team’s one and only three-point shooter last season, taking 248 total threes, more than double the next closest.
Although he struggled shooting from the perimeter as a freshman, if Wilson-Frame’s volume falls to him, McGowens could see a big jump in his scoring. If McGowens can maintain his accuracy from mid-range while improving on his three-point shooting and picking up the opportunities left over by Wilson-Frame he could easily become one of the team’s top two scoring options and Johnson’s number one target when distributing the ball.
Toney may have been the team’s fourth-leading scorer last season at 7.5 points per game, but he did not have a particularly good season shooting the ball. Toney shot .360 from the field, including .246 from three. Toney stands to see a large increase in shots from the 222 he took as a freshman. If McGowens moves into Wilson-Frame’s role, Toney could easily be asked to move into McGowens’s role from this year.
If this is the case, Toney will have to be a more efficient shooter if the team is going to rely on him. Toney was used less as a ball handler than Johnson and McGowens, averaging only 0.5 assists and 1.1 turnovers, he did, however, lead the team in rebounds with 179 (5.6 per game).
According to Capel, perimeter shooting and ball handling are two of the main focuses of the offseason for these three returning players, and Pitt’s progression in the ACC and as a program seems to hang on the ability of these three guards to improve in those areas.