Sometimes, things don’t work out according to plan.
Trey McGowens was the crown jewel of Jeff Capel’s hot start as Pitt’s head basketball coach, the highest-rated player in Pitt’s best recruiting class in six years that was going to turn the program around in his three or four years on campus before floating off to his seemingly assured NBA future.
Wednesday, McGowens made the decision to enter the NCAA transfer portal, likely ending his tenure with the Panthers after two seasons.
McGowens, who did not respond to a Pittsburgh Sports Now request for comment for this story, seemed to the look the part in his first season at Pitt.
A slashing guard, he and Xavier Johnson terrorized defenses in the first half of their freshman year, blowing by people on their way to the rim. McGowens averaged 12.1 points per game through non-conference play, and when he got his first taste of the ACC, he dominated.
McGowens scored 17 points in his ACC debut against North Carolina. Four days later, he set a program record with 33 points as a freshman in an overtime victory over Louisville. On Jan. 14, he scored 30 in an upset win over Florida State.
McGowens had been a highly touted recruit for Pitt’s standards, but across the ACC, with the number of top programs bringing in the very best recruits, McGowens didn’t exactly move the needle when it came to being a player that other teams needed to prepare for.
That changed in a hurry after dropping 30-plus on two of the league’s best programs. Teams started to back away from Johnson and McGowens, first sagging or moving under ball screens, and later adopting a nearly universal zone defense against the Panthers.
The way to stop Pitt’s dynamic guards was out: make them shoot.
McGowens, in particular, never seemed to raise his game to meet that challenge. In fact, his shooting percentage continually fell as teams tried to take away his ability to finish around the rim. Midway through his freshman season, he owned a 46% field goal percentage. By the end of the year, it was 41.7%.
In his sophomore season, it fell to 36.7%.
McGowens made up for his lack of shooting ability in other areas, becoming a far better passer in his second season, more than doubling his assist rate from 1.7 to 3.6 and becoming an even better defender.
But as his shot faltered, the praise and adulation of the Pitt faithful for his unexpected commitment to the program and phenomal first half of the season turned into ire.
McGowens, who reclassified to come to Pitt at 17, didn’t seem to handle the criticism well. He went through an extended slump in the second half of his freshman year and later admitted that he got down on himself and didn’t handle the mental adjustment to the collegiate game well.
In the start of his sophomore season, there was newfound optimism, particularly after an opening night upset of Florida State, but again, Pitt’s offense slowed in the second half of the season as more and more teams backed into a zone.
More despairingly, Capel said that as his team went on some tough offensive stretches, he thought it leaked into their defense at the other end of the court.
But when Pitt beat Georgia Tech on Feb. 8, there was still plenty to play for. With a hot run into March, the Panthers could have wrapped up an NIT big and entered the ACC Tournament knocking on the Big Dance’s door.
Instead, Pitt lost its last seven regular season games.
The details remain slim and no participants have agreed to speak about it on the record, but a physical altercation that occurred between teammates in the second half of the season might have played a role. As Pitt’s losses piled up, there were times when the team seemed to lack focus and mental togetherness.
By the time Pitt was eliminated from the ACC Tournament last week, McGowens had the body language of someone that had long since checked out.
In the end, McGowens’ time at Pitt will likely be characterized more by what he could have become than what he did become, as the shining potential that he showed in his freshman season as a player that could be one of the major factors in lifting the program back up was never realized.
But it’s also important to recognize the role he played in allowing it become what it already has. His commitment to Pitt and Capel, without ever taking a visit to campus, got the ball rolling on that and future recruiting efforts.
His key roles in those early wins helped re-build the excitement and energy in the Petersen Events Center after a nearly vacant season before he arrived.
McGowens may not be at Pitt to see the program’s eventual rise, but he will remain a part of its foundation.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story specifically said that the altercation between Pitt players came after the Georgia Tech game. That was incorrect.