Prior to Tuesday nights contest against Louisville, Pitt announced that wings Justin Champagnie and Au’Diese Toney would be out for the game, each with leg injuries suffered over the weekend.
Toney is day-to-day with an ankle problem, while Champagnie has been ruled out for 6-8 weeks with a knee injury.
6-8 weeks. That will be, at minimum, nine games missed.
If Champagnie were to miss just those six weeks, he would be back in time for Pitt’s home game against a talented Virginia Tech team. If his return takes eight weeks, he would miss 12 total games and be back in time for Pitt’s matchup against NC State, also at home. In between those games are three important away contests, at Wake Forest, at Louisville, and at Syracuse.
The sophomore forward’s absence will be felt immensely. Champagnie, averaging 17.8 points and 12.3 rebounds per game early on in the season, has become arguably the most valuable player in the entire conference.
The Brooklyn native’s freshman season was spectacular. He averaged 12.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, earning ACC player of the week honors in February after averaging 25.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.
Through six games in his sophomore campaign, Champagnie has been even better. He has become as dominant of a rebounder as there is in the entire nation. He has cemented himself in the record books with two straight 20-point, 20-rebound performances. He has been irreplaceable.
Now, with Champagnie out for a significant portion of time, Pitt will need other players to step up.
On Tuesday night against Louisville, Pitt started out with Xavier Johnson, Ithiel Horton, Nike Sibande, Noah Collier, and Abdoul-Karim Coulibaly sharing the floor. This new-look lineup came out to a relatively slow start, trailing 24-10 after 12 minutes of play.
Pitt was looking for a spark offensively, and acting head coach Tim O’Toole turned to fellow New Yorker Femi Odukale for that spark.
“One of the things we knew coming into the game is we thought we needed Xavier, IT, and Nike to really have a big night,” said O’Toole. “When Femi came in, it gave us a huge lift. It was a tremendous thing for us especially going forward because you get productivity out of young guys.”
The 6-foot-5 Odukale hit two back-to-back threes early on, jumpstarting a 17-3 first-half run for the Panthers. He showed lots of confidence in his stroke and also excelled driving to the basket and pulling up for multiple contested mid-range jumpers. He went on to score 12 first half points and finished the game with 16.
Going forward, the Panthers will heavily rely on their guards to score the basketball. That includes Johnson, who scored just ten points before fouling out against Louisville. Although he was dealing with foul trouble for a large portion of the game, Johnson often shared the court with Odukale, who is thought by many to become Pitt’s next point guard once Johnson leaves. The two found success while out there together, and this relationship on the court will be crucial to the Panthers scoring success in the next few weeks without Champagnie.
“The situations don’t really matter,” Odukale said about him and Johnson being on the floor together. “When me and X is in the game I feel like we click, because off the court we always talk to each other, play games with each other, so when we’re on the court I’m just happy to play with him because I know what he can do and he knows what I can do.
Champagnie’s absence left a gaping hole on the boards for the Panthers against the Cardinals. At times, it seemed as though the Pitt players were waiting for him to come fly through the lane and grab the loose ball. Louisville out-rebounded the Panthers 45 to 26, and 15 to eight on the offensive glass. They also dominated the inside offensively, scoring 34 points in the paint compared to Pitt’s 24.
“Louisville did a lot of things that hurt us,” O’Toole said after the game. “The one glaring thing to me was the backboard. Obviously when you lose Justin and when you lose Au’Diese, a lot of that physicality and toughness that you had in to rebound wasn’t there. But the reality is we knew this. We needed to be tougher, we needed to be more physical, and we weren’t all night long.”
Other than Odukale, Pitt’s other freshmen have been a bright spot for the program early on and will have to continue to make a big impact without Champagnie on the floor to guide them. Freshman William Jeffress is going to play a key role in filling in for Champagnie in the coming weeks. The 17-year-old will continue to be one of the first players off the bench every game for Jeff Capel. Through seven games, he is averaging 17.4 minutes per game.
Against Louisville, Collier also contributed solid minutes. He was on the court for 28 minutes and led the team with a +/- of 5. At 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, Collier possesses fairly similar size to Champagnie, who is 6-foot-6 200. He brings toughness to the court with him every time he plays, and has defended in huge moments for the Panthers including down the stretch against Northwestern.
Another key factor for the Panthers will be the play of their two transfers. Horton has had a couple of games in which he flashed his shooting ability, but has gone cold in the others. On Tuesday night he was 3-for-9 from the field including 0-for-3 from 3-point land. He did, however, provide some rebounding help in moments when it seemed as though Louisville was about to blow the game open. He finished Tuesday’s contest with six points and four rebounds in 34 minutes played.
Sharing the floor with Horton at many points throughout the game against Louisville was Sibande. In his two games, the Miami (OH) transfer has shown flashes of quickness and a 3-point stroke that could be very important for Pitt down the stretch this season. However, because of NCAA transfer rules, he was just recently notified that he would be able to play this season, so it is fair to say he is still a bit rusty. Heading into a gauntlet of an ACC schedule, Sibande will need to continue to attack when he has the ball in transition and consistently knock down the three.