Pitt fans, be honest with me for a moment.
Prior to the season, how many of you thought that at the end of January, people would be discussing scenarios for the Panthers getting into Match Madness?
Following last night’s win over Boston College, Pitt sits with a record of 13-6 and 4-4 in the ACC. While it’s probably still a long shot, the fact that it’s a topic of conversation is a testament to the amazing job Jeff Capel has done in just his second season.
When trying to critique the good and bad of this year’s team, it should not be forgotten that this program went 0-18 just two years ago in the ACC, which is incredible.
Look at the progress that’s been made:
Last season: 14-19, 3-15 in ACC
This season: 13-6, 4-4 in ACC
With at least 13 games left, it’s almost certain that the Panthers will make marked improvement from a year ago and considering the remaining schedule, a 20-win season and their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2015-16 isn’t crazy to discuss.
To this point, Capel and his staff have only been able to sell future recruits on rebuilding the Pitt program but with the way things are progressing, they’re going to be able to use the words NCAA tournament.
SHOULD BE BETTER IN 2020-21
The most encouraging part about Capel’s rebuild of the program is that the core of this program is underclassman and more talent is on the way.
The nucleus of Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, Au’Diese Toney and Justin Champagnie are all scheduled to return and will be two year “veterans” of playing in the ACC.
Combine that with Karim Coulibaly and Gerald Drumgoole having an off-season of working on their game and their strength plus the front court additions of John Hugley, Noah Collier and Max Amadasun plus transfer Ithiel Horton.
These players, especially Hugley, could provide the front court impact that this years team is missing. Having legitimate scoring threats in the paint will only make players like McGowens, Johnson and Champagnie more dangers, which should be a pleasant thought for Capel.
In order for a team to improve from the previous season, individual players need to take upward steps in their games and that’s happened.
Maybe the most improved player from last year is Au’Diese Toney. The sophomore has developed into one of Capel’s most reliable players and a solid player both offensively and defensively.
Toney has become an important piece to this team because he’s added more offense to his above average ability to defend and rebound. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of a player back in Pitt’s glory days: Jaron Brown because of his ability to do everything well.
EYE FOR TALENT
Capel has earned a reputation for his ability to recruit and rightly so. Most of his bigger gets have been four and five-star players but Pitt’s best player this season wasn’t a heralded recruit.
When Pitt got a commitment from Justin Champagnie it wasn’t headline news in the recruiting world. But maybe it should’ve been.
The three-star recruit from Brooklyn, New York has been Pitt’s best and most consistent player. The 6-foot-5 wing has shown an ability to provide offense from both the outside and in the paint as well as gobble up key rebounds.
In my opinion, the season Champagnie is having has gone under the radar nationally. West Virginia center Oscar Tshiebwe has received plenty of attention for the production he’s given Bob Huggins.
But they’re not that far apart.
Tshiebwe: 11.7 points and 9.5 rebounds, 23.2 minutes per game.
Champagnie: 11.4 points and 6.9 rebounds, 30.8 minutes per game.
Heather Lyke made the decision to hire Capel from Duke and like most of her moves while at Pitt it’s been a home run. In fact you can argue that the hiring of Capel has been the most important thing she’s done as athletic director.
This last half of the season should be fun and if he can somehow coach this team to dancing in March, Capel can add the description miracle worker to his already impressive resume.