In November of 2020, Pitt’s basketball team was motivated. It was driven. It was ready to prove people wrong.
After being ranked No. 13 in the conference in the ACC Preseason Poll and not having a single player on the Preseason All-ACC teams, the Panthers were inspired to make it happen, and they had nothing to lose.
With the 30th best recruiting class in the nation coming in, fans were ready to see the development of the young guns on the team: William Jeffress, John Hugley, Femi Odukale, Noah Collier, and Max Amadasun.
Fans were also eager to see a complete Xavier Johnson after seeing his potential in his freshman year and seeing his low-points in his sophomore year. They were ready to see him put it all together and be a star point guard for the program.
Fans were ready for Justin Champagnie’s sophomore season, after a steady freshman year in which the tough Brooklyn forward averaged 12.7 points and seven rebounds per game.
Although COVID had pushed back the start of the season and everyone knew that it would be a problem throughout the season, things were not all that bad for a Pitt program in its third year under Capel.
When November 25 finally arrived, Capel and the Panthers were ready to make a run and prove everyone wrong. They felt they were better than the 13th best team in the ACC.
Then came St. Francis. The Red Flash came into the Pete and dominated Pitt the whole 40 minutes. Champagnie went 5 for 16. Johnson? 2 for 9. The Panthers had fallen in their season opener, a buy game against in-state St. Francis, by a score of 80-70.
“It is very disappointing for us,” Capel said after the loss. “We have the energy required to have a chance to become a good team and I’m not really sure why. It took us a half to really get that energy. We tried to emphasize defense and rebounding and we did not do a good job of that. We panicked in the first half when we couldn’t make a shot. They prey off of that. We have a lot of work to do. The outcome is a surprise and how we started is a surprise.”
After St. Francis came a run of five straight wins, including an electrifying comeback at Northwestern and a blowout win over ACC opponent Miami which was once again on the road. The team started to develop an underdog identity, especially away from home.
‘Roadkill,’ they called it.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) December 10, 2020
Then came a loss to Louisville at home, in which Pitt fans learned much more about the name Femi Odukale.
Johnson fouled out, giving the Brooklyn native Odukale his chance to shine. The freshman went 7 for 15 from the floor, scoring 16 points in the loss. Fans were now becoming more and more excited about what this team could accomplish when it reaches its full potential.
A COVID-19-related postponement against Duke after Christmas break resulted in more than two weeks off for the Panthers leading up to the bulk of their ACC schedule. Who was up next? Syracuse. Jim Boeheim. At the Carrier Dome.
For a team coming off an extended break especially, heading into a place like the Carrier Dome to take on a talented Syracuse team was no easy task. However, after trailing by as much as 18 points, Pitt took down the Orange in as exciting a road-victory as Panther fans have seen in years.
Ithiel Horton hit shots down the stretch. Terrell Brown, yes, Terrell Brown made a big impact towards the end. The Panthers had taken down the Orange in epic fashion, and looked like they were inching towards their full potential.
“I like to call it roadkill, because, you go on the road and get a win and that just kills the other team’s vibe,” Johnson said after the win at Syracuse. “The last last few years, we haven’t won too many road games. This year from experience, you kind of know what it takes now.”
Riding high after its exciting win over Syracuse, Pitt fans were once again hit with bad news when they learned that the freshman Hugley had been suspended from the program due to three felony charges that he picked up over the summer. The team would now have to rely on Abdoul-Karim Coulibaly and Terrell Brown at center until further notice.
After the Hugley news and another postponement, Pitt was scheduled to take on Syracuse once again after a break. With the shocking early return of Champagnie to the lineup, the second round of the Pitt-‘Cuse series also went Pitt’s way, although this time in blowout fashion, ending in a 96-76 win at home for Pitt.
Up next was possibly the most anticipated game every year for Capel, as he was taking on his former head coach, the legendary Mike Krzyzewski and Duke. While Duke had not had the start to the season that it had wanted, it still was throwing out a starting five of four and five stars, as well as top NBA prospect Jalen Johnson coming off the bench.
Pitt started off with all the momentum. The Panthers came to play. Champagnie came to play. He came to make his name known. He came to make Pitt’s name known.
In what most Pitt fans would call the most memorable game of the year, Pitt took down Goliath. The Panthers had defeated Duke 79-73, on ESPN, in primetime. Champagnie put up 31 and 14 and only missed three of his 15 shots all game. He was a star, and this Pitt team sat at 8-2 overall and 4-1 in conference, near the top of the ACC. It appeared that Pitt was, as Champagnie put it, back.
Champagnie on what this win means?
"Oh, Pitt is back." pic.twitter.com/SotDqolN8h
— George Michalowski (@MichalowskiCBB) January 20, 2021
Then came Wake Forest and Ismael Massoud. The sharp shooter hung a 30-piece on Pitt, knocking down eight of his ten three-point attempts. After a buzzer beater attempt by Johnson came up no good, Pitt had fallen to one of the bottom-tier programs in the ACC. But it would just be a little bump in the road, right?
Wrong. The Panthers kept falling, and could not stop the skid. A win against Virginia Tech kept the March Madness hopes alive momentarily, but Pitt could not stop the bleeding overall.
So, the on-the-court issues were evident. Pitt was struggling to defend the outside, struggling to score points outside of Champagnie, and struggling to win games.
However, what fans could not see was the off-the-court issues within the team.
Due to reasons that are unknown, two of Pitt’s best players, Johnson and Toney, both decided to transfer out of the program in the same week. First Johnson and then Toney, the two left the program with three games remaining on the schedule, leaving fans puzzled and frustrated.
After the season ended, Pitt also saw Brown, Coulibaly, and Gerald Drumgoole leave the program to find new homes in the transfer portal. The roster was shrinking, and the options to fill spots were unclear.
While Capel and his staff had success landing transfer portal targets Dan Oladapo and Jamarius Burton as well as 2021 prospect Nate Santos, there are still multiple spots open on the roster. And now, with the news of Champagnie’s decision to leave Pitt, fully commit to the NBA Draft, and sign with an agent, Pitt fans are left looking back on a rough year full of ups and downs, unsure where the program is headed next.