PITTSBURGH — What kind of player has the Pitt basketball team lacked this season? There’s probably a couple of answers to that question, but there should be an obvious one that comes to mind: A shooting guard that can haunt opposing defenses with an ability to consistently make perimeter shots.
Freshman Justin Champagnie has shown in spurts that he’s capable of being able to fill that void. Junior guard Ryan Murphy started the season as that guy. But since returning to action after dealing with a concussion, he hasn’t made a 3-pointer in his last five games.
However, there is someone on the Panthers that truly fits that role.
That player’s name is Ithiel Horton.
Despite not being able to be on the court to help Pitt’s offense during games this season, Horton has been able to match up against the Pitt defense each day in practice, and he’ll be one of the most critical pieces to Pitt’s future.
Horton, who committed to head coach Jeff Capel and the Panthers in July, is a 6-foot-3 guard that transferred to Pitt from Delaware after his freshman season with the Blue Hens. He averaged 13.2 points and 3.1 rebounds last season and set a Delaware freshman record with 79 3-pointers made while shooting 40.9%. Horton led all freshman in the CAA in scoring and was named to the All-Rookie Team.
Pitt has shot just 29.2% from beyond the arc this season, while opponents are shooting at a 34.1% clip.
Even with Horton’s numbers and accolades a season ago, how do we know that his talents will translate at Pitt? Well, he’s been practicing with the Panthers all season long, and his new coach had some high praise for the Vauxhall, New Jersey native.
“He’s been as good as anyone on our team all year long,” Capel said on Monday. “He’s gotten confident. I think playing against Xavier [Johnson], Trey [McGowens], and Au’Diese [Toney] every day has really, really helped him. He has a chance to be a very good player. He can really shoot the basketball; he probably handles it a little better than I thought, and that’s something he has continued to work on.”
However, there’s been a negative for the Panthers who have to play against Horton on the practice squad.
“It can also mess with guys confidence too,” Capel said. “Because you can play really good defense on him, and a lot of times this year, there’s been nothing anyone can do, so that can mess with some guys as well.”
On the other hand, you usually can’t simulate having to prepare for the best scoring guards in the country in practice, because you’re typically going against walk-ons or reserves.
“[Horton] can score at all three levels,” Johnson said. “I think he’s a pro scorer, for real. [He] helps me become a better on-ball defender. He’s actually really, really good. I wasn’t expecting to see all that from him.”
Horton’s stellar play in practice has worked out as a measuring stick for the other Panthers and their coaches.
“I tell our guys that if you can guard him in practice, I haven’t seen a better guy in this league that they will have to guard,” Capel added on Horton. “So, if you can do a good job against him, you can carry that over into the game.
“He has a great spirit about playing. He’s competitive. He’s one of the most positive, upbeat guys I’ve been around. He comes to work every day to really work on his game, but also try to help us to get better.”
Horton alluded to the fact that he’s able to study film on the top guards that Pitt faces, and he tries to emulate his game after a number of those different guys. Horton talked about that being one of the main positives from sitting out this season. He’s gotten the chance to become a better student of the game while having unlimited time to work on his craft.
But the transition hasn’t been seamless.
With his great spirit and enthusiasm about the game he loves, Horton has been dealing with that mental hurdle of having the game “taken” from him. Coach Capel talked Monday about having countless conversations with Horton this season on how to handle this new situation that he’s in.
Horton did, however, say that he’s thankful to be at a school like Pitt and how it’s always been a dream of his to play in a conference like the ACC.
“I’ve always talked about this level (of basketball), with my dad,” Horton said. “I’d sit on the couch with him and watch these types of games and the NCAA tournament.”
Since he wasn’t highly touted coming out of high school and didn’t get the chance to compete with the players on this level as quickly as he would have liked, it will only continue to give him a competitive edge.
“There’s definitely a chip on my shoulder,” Horton added. “I never thought I’d be here, to be honest, and now that I’m here, it still doesn’t feel real … That’s okay, though. It’s fuel to the fire. I can’t wait to get out there next year.”
When you think of Horton, you can’t help but think about where he could fit in with this current roster, and even more so with next season’s team.
“You don’t have to create for him; he can create for himself,” Johnson said.
Not having to rely on Johnson and McGowens to create shots for him will not only help the team as a whole, but has the added benefit of taking pressure off of Pitt’s two primary ball handlers.
Horton may come off as a guy that can do a ton of great things individually on the court. But he’s also someone who knows that for him to be the best player he can be, he needs everyone around him to grow. That growth will inevitably result in wins for a program that wants nothing more than that.
“It’s not about me. Horton said. “It’s about my teammates and the will and want to win.”