One big reason that many people expected improvement from this year’s Pitt men’s basketball team was the return of Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson.
As freshmen last year, that duo were the unquestioned leaders and two best players in Jeff Capel’s first season with the Panthers. They were Capel’s first two commitments after taking over at Pitt and showed that they could be the cornerstone pieces to the rebuild of Pitt basketball.
While McGowens slumped a bit during conference play, which isn’t unusual for a freshman playing in the best conference in college basketball, Johnson was pretty much steady from the start of the season to the last game. In 33 games, “X” averaged 15.5 points, 4.5 assists, 3.9 rebounds, shot 41.5% from the field and 75% from the free throw line.
Those numbers and the steady play had plenty of people excited about the future of Johnson at Pitt and beyond. In fact prior to the season, Johnson’s name has come up in 2020 NBA Mock Drafts in which they forecast him being a possible second round pick.
It’s not just the media that was forecasting Johnson to leave Pitt after the season. While recruiting for his Class of 2020, Capel was selling various point guards on the opportunity of immediate playing time because they were expecting Johnson to declare for the draft after the season. Johnson himself told PSN last season that he didn’t he himself as a four-year collegiate player.
Whether it’s all this talk about the NBA, opposing teams playing him differently or a number of different things, the bottom line is through four games this season, Johnson doesn’t even resemble the player we saw last season.
Statistics usually build a case one way or the other when you’re trying to make a point and they sure do concerning his drop in play.
2018 Pts/game: 15.5, 2019 Pts/game: 8.5
2018 FG %: 41.5%, 2019 FG %: 31.4%
2018 FT %: 75.1%, 2019 FT %: 60.0%
Johnson was the Panthers’ go-to-guy last year and someone that was always counted on to score in double figures. It wasn’t until the Duke game on Jan. 22, that Johnson was held to under 10 points. In 12 of Pitt’s first 18 games of the season, Johnson scored 15 or more points.
A big reason for reaching double-digit scoring was Johnson’s ability to blow past his defender and get fouled which resulted in free throws. Once again referencing the start of the 2018 season, Johnson attempted 10 or more free throws in a game in 14 of Pitt’s first 18 games.
So far in 2019, Johnson hasn’t attempted double-digit free throws in a game yet and has attempted only 7 free throws combined in the last 3 games.
Only four games have been played and conclusions don’t need to be drawn for the entire 2019-20 season, but for whatever the reason, Johnson has gotten off to a shaky start and not one that many people would’ve forecasted.
Being a former star point guard himself, Capel is undoubtedly working with Johnson on whatever the problem is and it shouldn’t be surprising if he snaps out of it and looks like his old self Monday night vs. Monmouth.
Unfortunately, the scary reality for Capel and Pitt is that they have no one else behind Johnson and are going to sink or swim with him. He is so critical to the overall success of the team and if he can’t put things together and start to look like the old “X”, it’s going to be a real long year for Pitt basketball.
If that seems like a lot of pressure for a college player, it is, but that’s the reality of playing big-time college basketball and I’m sure Johnson realizes and accepts that pressure.
If you’re looking for a small positive out of these early struggles, maybe Johnson will shelve the thoughts about leaving early for the NBA and come to the conclusion that another year working with Capel will serve him best.
Where Johnson plays next season isn’t what’s being discussed at The Pete and instead it’s trying to find out a way to rediscover the old Johnson because if Pitt is going to be “It,” “X” needs to reappear and be on the mark.