CHARLOTTE — Pitt’s men’s basketball team brings back just four players from a season ago who were regular contributors in Jeff Capel’s rotation. Four scholarship players are gone and a fifth is recovering from off-season surgery.
Among the biggest losses is Jared Wilson-Frame. Not only will the veteran’s intangibles be difficult to replace, but they’ll miss his stellar three-point shooting. Wilson-Frame sank 98 shots from behind the arc last season, connected on 39.5 percent on all of his attempts from that distance, and his six makes in the first half of Pitt’s ACC tournament loss to Syracuse were a big reason why the Panthers led that game at halftime.
When asked at the ACC’s Operation Basketball event last week who would fill the deep-shooting void left by Wilson-Frame, Pitt sophomore Xavier Johnson didn’t want to single anyone out, initially.
“That’ll be a big team effort,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to say any names, but we got some guys who can shoot that.”
“Ryan Murphy is definitely one of them,” Johnson revealed.
Over the summer, during training camp in the fall, and on their trip to Italy, the Panthers have learned what the new faces on the squad will bring to the team this season. And it seems that the returning Panthers and Capel have liked what they’ve seen.
“I think we have an opportunity to be better defensively than we were last year. I think, first and foremost, we’ll have experience,” Capel said. “We have more quality depth that we can play, and then I think our inside guys have gotten better.”
Murphy was Pitt’s big get in the transfer market this off-season. After spending his freshman season at UNC-Charlotte – where he averaged 6.7 points per-game and shot 40 percent from three-point range – Murphy played at New Mexico Junior College last year where he averaged 18.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per-game.
The 6-foot-2 junior from Fairfield, Connecticut transformed himself into a top 50 transfer target. Before joining Pitt, he had committed to Washington State and also considered offers from Texas Tech, USF, St. John’s and East Carolina.
During Pitt’s tour in Italy – in which they played three games over 10 days – Murphy showed what he can do for the Panthers this season. The JUCO transfer led the team in scoring with 49 points (16.3 points per-game) and connected on 12-of-24 three-pointers for a 50 percent clip.
“Ryan is a guy that can really shoot the ball, and that’s something that we need. That’s something we struggled with last year with Jared Wilson-Frame being the only guy that was a consistent outside shooter,” Capel said. “That’s something we need from Murph and he’s proven that he can do that, so far. As we start playing games, he has to continue to do that and he has to be a good defender and he has to understand who he is, and I think he does. He’s played and practiced very well for us. He did very well over in Italy.”
Pitt made stops in Rome, Florence, Bologna, Vicenza and Venice during their trip abroad. They played against two all-star teams from Italian leagues and a game against the Netherlands’ second-choice national team. Pitt won each contest, scoring in triple digits twice.
“That was really big. We all looked at each other and realized from playing in those games what we could be,” Johnson said of the Italy trip. “We really have a chance to meet our goals.”
Capel didn’t coach in any of the games. Instead, he observed away from the bench for a different perspective and allowed his assistant coaches to rotate on head coaching duties, each taking a game.
Pitt’s coaches wanted the trip to be fun and low-stress, but they also wanted to see what certain lineups looked like: how one player might pair with another, how one player might perform off the bench, what a four-guard lineup might look like.
“That was purposeful, because I wanted to see different things,” Capel said. “I thought it was a great trip for us… We, as a coaching staff, had an opportunity to see where we are. I thought everyone had moments. We tried not to make it too serious and we tried not to make rash decisions. Every scholarship guy started a game while we were there.”
Having a breakout performance in Pitt’s second game overseas was freshman Justin Champagnie, who has 16 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and two assists in a win over the Florence All-Stars.
Champagnie was a three-star 6-foot-5 prospect out of Brooklyn, New York and chose Pitt over offers from Cincinnati, Texas, Seton Hall and Rutgers. Over three games in Italy, he led Pitt in blocked shots with six and shooting percentage with a 63.6 percent mark.
“Justin is very athletic, long and can jump out of the gym,” Johnson said of his new teammate.
Also having a big game in Italy was Karim Coulibaly, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds in a win over the Vicenza All-Stars. Tabbed as a three-star recruit from Mali, Coulibaly spent the last two years at the Scotland Performance Institute in central Pennsylvania, where he attracted offers from Penn State, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia. The 6-foot-8 forward chose Pitt and Capel though, and could provide depth in the front court this season.
“Karim started off slow, a normal freshman thing,” Johnson said. “But he’s a big who can really pass the ball, which is amazing.”
Four-star prospect Gerald Drumgoole was Pitt’s big recruiting coup this offseason, landing the services of the 6-foot-6 forward from Rochester, New York over Minnesota, South Carolina, Maryland and Georgia. Over three games in Italy, he racked up 22 points, 14 rebounds, seven steals and six assists.
Another newcomer who should be a rotation player this year is grad transfer Eric Hamilton, a 6-foot-9 forward who has had previous stops at UNC-Greensboro and Wichita State. At UNCG last year, Hamilton averaged 6.1 points and 4.4 rebounds in 19 minutes per-game. In Italy, he led the team in rebounding, grabbing 19 boards over three games.
Pitt’s new additions will have to mesh with the holdovers from last year’s squad quickly. The Panthers won’t open this season with a lesser opponent like VMI or Maryland Eastern Shore. On opening night, Nov. 6, Leonard Hamilton and his Florida State Seminoles come to the Pete.
“As a player, you want to play against the best all the time. You want to play in big games, you want to be a part of that,” Capel said. “As a coach, you maybe want a little bit more time to prepare and things like that. I’ve learned that coaches tend to worry a bit more than players do.
“We’re excited about it. We’re playing a really good team in Florida State who’s been incredibly consistent, very quietly, which I’m sure Leonard loves. But they’ve been really good for a while. They’ll always be big, they’ll always be athletic and they’ll always really defend.”