Through four games, Pitt’s leading rebounder has not been starting center Abdoul Karim Coulibaly. It has not been highly touted freshman forward John Hugley, either. Nor has it been Terrell Brown. Frankly, none of them are even close.
The current leader is 6-foot-6 wing Justin Champagnie.
On Wednesday night, Champagnie delivered a jaw-dropping performance on the glass. He hauled in a career high 20 rebounds, throwing his previous record of 17 out the window. Every time the Wildcats missed a shot, it felt as if Champagnie would be right there, positioning himself for the board.
“Justin was spectacular,” Jeff Capel said when asked about Champagnie’s performance Wednesday night. “Justin was tremendous with what he did rebounding the basketball and then finishing.”
Part of the reason that Champagnie leads Coulibaly, Brown, and Hugley by such a wide margin is due to the fact that he plays more minutes than they do. In fact, at some points in the game against Northwestern, Pitt played without any one of the three on the court. After the game, Capel talked about this popular small ball strategy which worked well for Pitt against the WIldcats.
“It is unpredictable, he said. “It’s something that we practiced before this game for a couple of days. It’s something we looked at. To go a little bit smaller, to try to spread the floor out a little bit more, and to try to allow our guys to be instinctive, and it’s something we felt tonight. It was a suggestion from an assistant, and I trusted it.”
Pitt’s second- and third-leading rebounders are wing Au’Diese Toney and point guard Xavier Johnson, who are averaging 5.5 and 5.3 per game, respectively.
The benefits of having well-rebounding guards are endless. It opens up the floor, resulting in more fast-break points, and allowing shooters like Ithiel Horton to run down on a missed shot and not have to wait for multiple passes to get them the ball.
OWNING THE OFFENSIVE GLASS
Against Northwestern, the Panthers tracked down 19 offensive rebounds, allowing for many second chance opportunities that led to them coming back and defeating the Wildcats. Throughout the rest of the upcoming season and especially during ACC play, offensive rebounding is going to have to be one of the most crucial parts of the Panthers’ game if they want to win.
So far, it has been.
Through four games, Pitt has averaged 14.75 offensive rebounds per game, which puts them at 24th in the country for the young 2020 season. Last year, Pitt averaged 12 offensive rebounds per game, which was good for 31st in the nation. After the game, Capel talked about his team’s production on the offensive glass over the past two years.
“We missed enough shots where we had to do something,” he said, laughing. “We were a really good offensive rebounding team last year. Now, we missed a lot of shots last year too, but that’s something that we feel can be a strength of ours and it was tonight.”
Offensive rebounding is not just being in the right place at the right time. On Wednesday, the Panthers persevered through one of their worst shooting halves of basketball in program history and responded with an inspiring second-half effort en route to winning the overall rebound battle 54-34.
“I think it’s desire,” Capel said about what gave his team the edge on the glass. “I think it’s toughness, I think it’s having a grasp of what it is you’re trying to do, I think it’s togetherness. I think it’s all of those things.”
TALE OF TWO X’S: PITT CAN’T AFFORD A STRUGGLING POINT GUARD
If Pitt wants to win, they will need to see more consistency from Johnson. In the first half against Northwestern, Johnson only scored five points, going 1 for 9 from the field and 2 for 5 from the free-throw line, including a rare airball. He was visibly frustrated, and after the game he spoke on how he was feeling after that half.
“I couldn’t make a layup,” he said after the game. “I was just frustrated. I was speeding myself up. I was like, man, I gotta get this back.”
Johnson rebounded strongly, scoring 16 in the second half and leading the Panthers to a victory. However, if they want to compete in the ACC with Johnson at the helm, they will need him to eliminate those five-point, 1-for-9 halves. ACC teams, unlike a struggling Northwestern team, will bury Pitt quickly if Johnson starts slow.
After the game, Capel spoke on Johnson’s roller coaster of a game.
“Obviously he’s a really, really good player and a very important player for us,” he said. “One of the great things about Xavier is his competitive spirit. One of the things that hurts him at times is his competitive spirit. He really wants to win. He wants us to be good. He wants his teammates to be good. And at times he can think I have to do it, I have to do it. And one of the things that we talked about at halftime was we have to do it. There’s not an individual in here that can do this.”
Entering the halftime locker room, Pitt trailed Northwestern 33-22. The Panthers shot a brutal 20.5% from the floor and 14.3% from downtown. That was largely in part due to the early struggles of Johnson and Champagnie, who combined to go 4 for 19 in the first half.
Through four games, Pitt ranks fifth in the ACC with an average of 36.5 points per first half. When it comes to ACC play, the Panthers will need to come out of the gates ready to go if they want to contend.
However, a positive sign that came out of this was that Pitt defended very well in the first half. Coming into Wednesday night’s matchup, Northwestern averaged 45 points per first half. After the game, Jeff Capel spoke on how his team handled the talented Wildcats offense while they themselves were struggling to score.
“We just could not make a shot,” he said about Pitt’s first half performance. “But the one thing we did was that we really defended at a high level. Our defense kept us where we were in distance. We came in at halftime and we told our guys just to relax. You could tell that guys were putting so much on their plate and frustrated and wearing their frustration on their face because of our offense and they were kind of missing the fact that we defended at such a high level.”
Had Pitt scored 22 points per first half through their first four games, they would currently rank around 298th in the nation.
The point is, Pitt cannot let that happen again. Ithiel Horton will have to heat up. Johnson and Champagnie will have to start faster. Everyone will have to improve their first-half production if Pitt expects to win games.
MAKING THE EASY ONES
Throughout the game in Evanston, Pitt struggled to finish up close, shooting a brutal 9 for 29 on layups. These inexcusable misses will have to be cleaned up by the Panthers in the near future, as they almost lost, due in large part to these missed opportunities.
“I think in the first half, I’m going to study the tape, we’ll study the tape, but I would imagine it’s at least 8-10 layups that we missed,” Capel said after the game.
Johnson, during his first half drought, missed two open layups after blowing by his defender with spectacular moves. William Jeffress, who played an excellent game otherwise and provided a big spark for Pitt, missed a dunk. All of these close-range misses added up and held the Panthers back from making a run earlier in the game.
Another spot on the floor where the Panthers struggled was the free-throw line. While there were some big free throws hit by Pitt down the stretch, the overall numbers were not great. Pitt finished 13 for 21 from the line, good for 61.9%. Champagnie specifically had trouble there, going 1 for 5.
With the Panthers still searching for consistency with long-range shooting, they have to do a better job of converting the easy ones.