CHARLOTTE — A season ago, Pitt’s men’s basketball team was going to go as far as a trio of wide-eyed and inexperienced freshmen could take them.
Occasionally, they flourished, like in the Panthers’ upset of Florida State at home, or in their ACC tournament win over Boston College. Other times, they floundered, like in their embarrassing loss to Niagara and their overtime defeat at Wake Forest.
Jared Wilson-Frame — who has since graduated — had some big moments too, but whether Pitt won or loss in Jeff Capel’s first season at the helm was largely decided by the play of Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney.
At Duke, Capel played a lot as a freshman, but he pointed out that there was much less pressure on him than there was for those three Panthers last season, because the Blue Devils could lean on a star veteran like Grant Hill. Pitt didn’t have that luxury.
And given the circumstances, Capel was impressed with how the freshmen trio dealt with the responsibilities bestowed on them.
“I thought they had outstanding freshmen seasons,” Capel said last week at the ACC’s Operation Basketball. “I played with I thought the best player in the country who was a senior, which is a rarity now… The reality of it is, that in order for us to have any chance of winning last year, they had to play well. That’s a different type of pressure than I experienced as a freshman. I thought they handled that very, very well because it can be overwhelming, especially this league.”
Together, Johnson, Toney and McGowens averaged 34.6 points per-game last season, a record for any three Pitt freshmen. Among them were 54 double-digit scoring performances. Johnson was named to the All-ACC Freshman Team, McGowens led the team in steals with 64 swipes and Toney – although undersized for a forward at 6-foot-6 – led the team in rebounding with 5.6 boards per-game.
A Huntsville, Alabama native, Toney left high school a year early to join the Panthers. As a raw rookie, what he lacked in size and experience, he made up for in heart and toughness. He was often tasked with guarding the opposition’s best scorer, and – in addition to his rebounding prowess – was fourth on the team in scoring with 7.5 points per-game.
“He had a really good freshman year. You’re talking about a kid that should’ve been competing in his senior year of high school, and he made his decision late to be a part of what we’re doing,” Capel said. “I think he acquitted himself very well… Hopefully we can get him to make a few more shots this year.”
Another returner in the frontcourt for Pitt is Terrell Brown, who is a bit more seasoned entering his junior year. A stout rim protector, Brown led the team in blocked shots with 60 swats last season and is close to breaking into the top 10 for all-time career blocks by a Panther.
The 6-foot-10 center from Providence, Rhode Island also averaged 5.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per-game last season. Capel is expecting a bit more from Brown this year.
“Terrell Brown has improved,” Capel said. “He’s gotten stronger and mentally he’s in a better place where he has confidence in himself.”
Johnson is looking to make a leap in his game too. With a year of college ball under his belt, he believes he has grown as a leader and a ball player.
“We’ve matured, very much,” Johnson said of himself and McGowens. “On the court and in the classroom… My job is to make everybody else around me better and to teach the freshmen from my experiences.”
Among players returning to the ACC this year, Johnson was the third leading scorer last year with 15.5 points per-game, trailing only Miami’s Chris Lykes and Louisville’s Jordan Nwora. Johnson didn’t make the preseason All-ACC team, but there’s palpable buzz around the Woodbridge, Virginia native, and there’s a real chance he could end up being a top five player in the ACC at the season’s end.
“I think he is,” Capel said when asked if Johnson is an All-ACC talent. “He had an outstanding freshman season. He has a chance. We need him to be of that ilk, of that caliber.”
McGowens has a chance to be special too. A few times last season, the guard from Piedmont, South Carolina showed his potential, and what could happen on nights where everything went his way, when he was clicking on all cylinders. He scored 33 points in an overtime home victory over Louisville, 30 points in Pitt’s upset of then-ranked No. 11 Florida State, and 26 points in their ACC tournament win over Boston College.
But McGowens also showed what can happen when he has a really off night, or when the defense is clamping down hard on him. He had five fouls and scored just three points in Pitt’s season-ending loss to Syracuse, shot two-of-nine and had three turnovers in 29 minutes in a loss to Clemson, and went one-of-eight from the floor with two turnovers in a win over lowly Maryland Eastern Shore. But McGowens treats those games as learning experiences, and he was thankful to have the opportunity to make mistakes and then grow from them.
“The experience last year, one of the biggest things was (Capel) trusted us to make decisions early on and play heavy minutes,” McGowens said. “I mean, I feel like that was the biggest thing that helped us play so well.”
For McGowens and the rest of the Panthers, the key this season will be consistency and growth. A step forward from the trio of sophomores could help Pitt win more games this season, and also help Capel lay a foundation that he builds on for years to come.
“I thought we had a lot of growth as a program in year one. It didn’t necessarily equate to as many wins as we would have liked,” Capel said. “I understand that takes time. Anything that’s sustainable is built on solid foundation, and that’s what we’re trying to establish right now. Our goal right now is to take another big step this year.”