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New faces, experience could be key to Pitt’s success this season



Pitt guard Ithiel Horton at the ACC Tip-Off on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in Charlotte. (Mitchell Northam / Pittsburgh Sports Now)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – What will Pitt’s men’s basketball team be good at this year? What will be the Panthers’ strength this season?

It’s hard to say, considering Pitt lost its top scorer and rebounder from last season, and its next two leading scorers. All-ACC talent Justin Champagnie stepped up to the NBA, Xavier Johnson transferred to Indiana, and Au’Diese Toney moved on to Arkansas.

Also gone are Abdoul Karim Coulibaly and Terrell Brown, who each played in more than 20 games and were the team leaders in blocks.

If you ask Ithiel Horton, Nike Sibande and head coach Jeff Capel what the Panthers’ best qualities are this season, you’ll get three different answers.

Horton: “I think the strength of his team is our grit and our energy, and our willingness to be together. We’re still trying to be a more-together team but, you know, I think our team this year is taking steps in the right direction in order to be together. And we’re just going to keep working on that cohesiveness.”

Sibande: “Our strength is just each other. You know, our will to depend on each other and demand each other to play hard, defensively and offensively. I just know that we’re going to play hard and we’ll give all we got on every play.”

Capel: “Still trying to figure that out. My hope is that our strength is our versatility and our depth and being able to play different lineups in different ways.”

Since it’s still October and no games have been played, it’s difficult to say if Pitt has energy, grit and togetherness, as Horton says, or if they’ll play hard on both ends like Sibande says. That all remains to be seen.

Capel’s sobering assessment is the most accurate at the moment. A quick glance at the roster shows that, indeed, the Panthers are deep, versatile and experienced. Pitt is carrying just one freshman on its roster this season in Nate Santos, and he’s 20-years-old. Santos, a 6-foot-7 forward, chose the Panthers over Ole Miss, Xavier, Virginia Tech and East Carolina.

Add in four transfers in Chris Payton (Indian Hills CC), Dan Oladapo (Oakland), Mouhamadou Gueye (Stony Brook), and Jamarius Burton (Texas Tech, and Pitt has one of its most seasoned rosters under Capel.

On paper, anyways – 10 players are classified as juniors or older.

“It is older as far as age. But as far as experience with us, it’s kind of in the middle. It’s an interesting makeup,” Capel said of his 2021-22 roster on Tuesday at the ACC Tip-Off event in Charlotte. “It’s older, but they’re new to our program… It’s been a really good group to work with. I’m excited about our potential and what I think we could become. We’re just going to get after every day and have the right attitude.”

As one of the tallest players on the roster, Gueye – a graduate transfer – should see significant minutes right away for Capel’s side, helping fill the void left in the front court. Last season at Stony Brook, the 6-foot-9 native of Staten Island averaged 9.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per-game while shooting 43% from the floor. He was named Defensive Player of the Year for the America East after leading the conference in blocks with 65. His defensive box plus/minus mark of 3.5 was also the best in the conference.

“He’s talented. He’s had a really good summer,” Capel said of Gueye. “He’s a versatile defender. He’s a guy, offensively, that I think has gotten a lot better since he’s been here. And we anticipate him being able to help us with a lot of different ways.”

Burton has already begun to help the team by taking on a leadership role. It was his influence that led Horton to delete all of his social media accounts and devote more time to basketball and his studies this offseason.

“Jamarius gave me some insight on how he was off social media and how it freed up a lot of time for him. Time is money. Time is the most valuable thing you have, so, let me try that,” Horton said. “It’s been liberating, from a mental standpoint, and from a getting things done standpoint.”

Burton, a Charlotte native, is playing on his third college basketball team at Pitt. He stared his career at Wichita State in 2018, and spent last season with Texas Tech. In 90 games played in his career – 56 of them starts – he’s averaging seven points, three rebounds and 2.8 assists per-game while shooting 33.6% from three-point range. A 6-foot-4 guard, Burton underwent a procedure on his knee recently, but Capel said Tuesday he “hopes” to have him back by the start of the season.

“Jamarius has been a great presence in the locker room. He’s a great guy to talk to,” Sibande said. “And he’s a great basketball player too. He’s definitely been a positive piece in the locker room, for sure.”

Of the 16 players on Pitt’s roster, 12 of them are at least 6-foot-4 or taller, a group that includes Burton and Sibande.

Pitt has a lot of pieces, and Horton, Sibande, Burton and Gueye figure to be key parts of the Panthers’ rotation this season, but it’s up to Capel and the coaching staff to make the pieces fit and put the players in the best position to succeed. The Panthers have a little less than a month to figure it out before opening their season against The Citadel on Nov. 9.

“We have a lot of holes, but we have to figure it out. That’s the bottom line,” Capel said. “We’ll score. We’ll score together. We have guys that put the ball in the basket… I’m concerned about us playing the right way, playing together, being tough and being good defensively.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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