PITTSBURGH — Pitt came into its ACC home opener against Louisville on Tuesday night in a tough situation.
The Panthers had just learned on Monday that starting wings and leading scorers Justin Champagnie would not be able top play in Tuesday’s game.
With one day to prepare, the Pitt braintrust, which included Jeff Capel working remotely and Tim O’Toole and company with the players at the Pete, had to come up with a game plan to beat No. 23 Louisville without Pitt’s most consistent offensive threats, top rebounder in Champagnie and best defender in Toney.
With both starting wings likely to be replaced by freshmen, the game plan, of course would have to center around guards Xavier Johnson, Ithiel Horton and Nike Sibande.
The problem was that the game plan that would work was equally obvious to Louisville. Cardinals coach Chris Mack made every effort to take away the slashing ability of Johnson and Sibande, and hoping that Horton, Pitt’s most experienced outside shooting threat couldn’t make them pay.
Early on, it seemed to working. Horton missed the first three shots he took — all jumpers — and Louisville raced out to a 24-9 lead.
That’s when freshman Femi Odukale caught fire.
Odukale checked into the game for the second time with 8:53 to play in the first half. He had played 3:10 to that point and was 0 for 1 shooting. By the end of the half, he had 14 points on 5 of 9 shooting with a pair of 3-pointers and Pitt had completely erased the Louisville deficit.
Pitt couldn’t keep up with the Cardinals, eventually falling by a 10-point margin. But the disappointment of the loss was somewhat mitigated by the fact that Pitt might have found a hidden gem amidst their current situation of missing two starters.
“The one bright spot was Femi,” O’Toole said. “Femi came in in the first half — X got a little bit of foul trouble — and he gave us quite a lift. One of the things we knew coming into the game as we thought we needed Xavier, IT and Nike to really kind of have a big night. Obviously, I think Louisville knew that too, so they weren’t gonna let that happen. But when Femi came in and gave us a huge lift, it was a tremendous thing for us, especially going forward.”
Horton has struggled with consistency, with a lot of pressure on his shoulders in the early part of the season as the guy that was supposed to be the biggest piece in turning around the moribund 3-point shooting that repeatedly plagued Pitt in 2019-20.
But Horton, who shot 40.9% from 3-point range as a freshman at Delaware in 2018-19, has hit just 36.7% of his threes this season and has made more than one in just two games.
Without Champagnie and Toney and even greater defensive attention, Horton finished Tuesday’s contest with six point on 3 of 9 shooting and was 0 for 3 from 3-point range.
It’s the story of what happened to Pitt so much a year ago. Without a consistent 3-point threat, many teams dared the Panthers to shoot from long range, and in the games where the shooters came up short, they lost — frequently by lopsided margins.
If Odukale can develop as a second scoring threat, that gives the Panthers a shot on nights like Tuesday, when Horton is unable to find his stroke.
That’s a big projection, as Odukale’s 16 points against Louisville represented more than the 13 he had in his first six games combined and on a percentage basis, he’s just 2 for 8 (25%) from 3-point range this season.
But Odukale also has a certain attitude about him that inspires more confidence than the typical freshman in his situation.
“He has such moxie as a guard, and he’s just a young guy, but he gave everybody this huge lift and then we got a little bit more confident,” O’Toole said. “Again, this was Noah [Collier]’s first start. John [Hugley] played big minutes and so you know Fem. We knew we had some gaps to fill, some holes. We had to fill that void.”
Capel has attributed Odukale’s maturity to the fact that he played an extra year of basketball as a postgraduate student at Springfield Commonwealth Academy in Massachusetts. That’s still a long way from the No. 23 team in the country, but for whatever reason, Odukale didn’t flinch when his number was called.
“I just thought in the game like, it’s basketball,” Odukale said. “We’re still playing basketball at the end of the day. I know I can read plays before it happens. I’m just trying to help my team win.”
THE BIGGER LOSS
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that the entire trajectory of Pitt’s 2020-21 season changed on Sunday, with the head coach in COVID-19 isolation.
That’s when Champagnie and Toney were injured during Pitt’s practice session. Monday, the team got the news that both would miss Tuesday night’s game.
Champagnie will miss far more. The star wing, who recorded back-to-back 20-point, 20-rebound games earlier this season, will miss six to eight weeks with a knee injury.
That will keep Champagnie out through the end of January. While there are no easy six-week stretches in the ACC, the games Champagnie will miss seem especially daunting: two games against No. 20 Duke, one at No. 17 North Carolina and another against No. 21 Florida State. No. 24 Virginia Tech is not much farther out at Feb. 3, well within the upper limit of the time Champagnie is expected to miss.
The injury should significantly change expectations for the program as it navigate’s Capel’s third season.
There’s hope that Toney, who might be Pitt’s best all-around player, despite not having Champagnie’s gaudy statistical figures, could return as soon as Pitt’s next game at Duke on Dec. 29.
’WE MAKE NO EXCUSES’
Don’t expect the changed expectations to trickle down to the Pitt coaching staff, though. O’Toole was demonstrative that what he expects out of his players will not change, despite the injuries.
And so while he was pleased with the performance of Odukale, and Collier and Hugley stepping up into bigger roles, Pitt needed more to win the game. The Panthers were dominated on the glass, struggled at the free-throw line and had important players miss time because of foul trouble, which added up to too many unforced mistakes in addition to the adversity they were facing that was out of their control.
“We will make no excuses,” O’Toole said. “None. So the reality is, we’re down two men. OK. This is part of life. You’ve got to be resilient. The word I use, especially when I think of this city, is the word gritty. There’s a toughness, but it’s passion and it’s perseverance, combined.”
REINFORCEMENT ON THE WAY
There is also a belief that Capel should be able to return for that trip to Durham, North Carolina.
Capel tested positive for COVID-19 at some point after Pitt’s ACC opener at Miami on Dec. 16, and the team announced the positive test on Saturday, Dec. 19.
O’Toole said on Tuesday that Capel had been dealing with some symptoms of the disease, but was still able to assist in game planning.
“Jeff is doing well,” O’Toole said. “He’s kind of fatigued a lot, so I didn’t want to beat him up too much, but I was calling him [Monday] night, all night. I was calling him [Tuesday.]”
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Before his illness, Capel had openly wrestled with the decision on whether or not to allow his players to return home for Christmas in the week between the team’s games from Dec. 22 to Dec. 29.
During a normal year, it would have been a no-brainer to get the team some much needed time away from the game before the grind of the ACC schedule. During the pandemic, when players have not been able to regularly see even close family members, the need for players to be with their families from a mental health standpoint has never been higher.
And yet Capel has also been tasked with keeping his team free of COVID-19 so that it can continue playing and fulfilling its conference obligations.
After weighing the options, Capel eventually decided to send his players home.
“The reality is that our guys have been up here for a while,” O’Toole said. “There’s no one here. There’s no one around at school. I know Jeff was really concerned. It’s like, there’s gotta be some normalcy somewhere. … They are going to go home and they’re going to need it. And I hope they enjoy that time.”