PITTSBURGH – Pitt wasn’t long into its matchup with Monmouth Monday night when Jeff Capel motioned down the bench for Onyebuchi Ezeakudo, a freshman walk-on who had played a total four minutes this season, to check into the game for Xavier Johnson.
After all, Johnson deserved it. With a trio of turnovers and no shot attempts within the first six minutes of play, the sophomore guard was off to another rough start that has quickly become habit for the Panthers five games into the 2019-20 season.
So, Capel made him sit, watch and take a deep breath or two.
“It calmed me down,” said Johnson after Pitt’s 63-50 win. “I was thinking too much. I needed to just play.”
The concept of “just playing” meant treating Monday night like it was just another game of pick-up ball, removed from the myriad distractions of bright lights, cameras, and spectators surrounding him inside the Petersen Events Center. Because when Johnson does that he’s seemingly himself again, resembling the humble but hungry under-the-radar recruit from Northern Virginia who broke the program’s freshman scoring record held in place since 1985.
Johnson ended the first half with two points and three turnovers, but something changed at halftime, something that sparked a return to form of being Pitt’s dynamic sparkplug on both ends of the floor. He tallied nine of the Panthers’ first 11 points to begin the second half, and finished the game with 15 points and nine assists – with 13 and seven of them, respectively, coming in the final 20 minutes. He set the tempo, pushed the pace and took care of the ball in arguably the best stretch we’ve seen from him this season. And the Panthers followed suit, shooting 63.6 percent (14 of 22) in a 42-point second half.
“The tempo felt a lot better,” Johnson said. “Once I saw the first three-pointer drop, everything opened up.”
That first three-pointer, which came at the 16:39 mark of the second half, was one of two he made in the game amidst a 5-for-11 shooting night. He dished nine of the Panthers’ 13 assists and didn’t commit another turnover following his benching.
The “pick-up game” mentality came from the direction of Capel, who has noticed a loss of edge in Johnson’s play thus far. The two had a long conversation about it following Pitt’s setback to West Virginia that revolved around symbolisms from … the Rocky movies.
“I equated it to Rocky III,” said Capel. “In Rocky I and II, he’s this street guy, and he hasn’t done anything. You think about Rocky II, he’s just this hungry dude from Philly, and then he wins the title – and that’s who (Johnson) was. But as Rocky III starts, now he’s the man, he’s doing commercials, he’s doing all these things. He’s big-time, and he gets his butt beat because he lost his edge. Sometimes, when you have success, it can make you lose your edge.”
As Johnson is learning this season, the responsibility of managing both success and expectation can be exceedingly more difficult than one might anticipate.
“He was this guy last year that was incredibly hungry because no one knew who he was,” said Capel. “There were no expectations for him. Then, all of a sudden you have a good year individually, and so there is an expectation of, ‘Well, I could be a pro.’ Success can make you soft sometimes, so we talked about that.”
Furthermore, Johnson is experiencing the consequences of failing to meet those expectations – both internally and from the outside world. He wasn’t particularly sharp in the opener, finishing with 13 points on 3-for-11 shooting as Pitt edged Florida State. Then came a 10 point/five turnover performance in the loss to Nicholls State followed by seven points on a 1-for-9 shooting night vs. Robert Morris. Against West Virginia, Johnson only took five shots in 29 minutes, and tallied more turnovers (5) than he did points (4).
And trust him, he’s heard about it.
“I had to cut Twitter off,” Johnson said. “I was actually doing things like reading that stuff people were saying. It was bad. I was getting in my feelings about it.”
A weekend away from social media appeared to pay off. Alongside solid performances from Trey McGowens (16 points) and Justin Champagnie (12 points, 10 rebounds) Monday night, Johnson was every bit of the player he used to be – serving as a step in the right direction toward a complete return to form that the Panthers will need from him by the time ACC play rolls around.