PITTSBURGH — When people talk about the best player on Pitt’s basketball roster, John Hugley is the first name that comes to mind, and rightfully so.
The big man is averaging more than 15 points per game, and has been a dominant force against pretty much every defense that he has faced.
However, in Saturday’s convincing win over Louisville, guard Jamarius Burton led Pitt in scoring, with 20 points on an efficient 8 for 13 from the field.
At first glance, Burton’s season averages -13 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game, 39% field goal percentage and 33% from three-point percentage – do not scream star player.
However, he may just be the most valuable player on Pitt’s team, especially as of late.
Burton has scored in double digits in ten straight games. He has played at least 35 minutes in ten straight games. He has hit at least one three-pointer in all but three games on the year. He is averaging the most minutes on the team (34.7). He has made 44 of his 48 free throws, a whopping, team-leading 92% mark.
“I thought today, he is more inclined, but I think he’s done that, he’s done a really good job for us,” Capel said about Burton. “I think he has, really, all year since he came. Again, we knew once we were able to get him back, that it was going to take a while. You don’t sit out five weeks and come back and automatically jump right into it and you’re good. It takes time to build up, to get in a rhythm, to get your body right, to get your legs under you. But he’s a worker. He’s a strong guy, he’s not a kid, he’s a man, and we need him to be a man, because we’re pretty young out there.”
Since returning from his early-season injury, Burton has proven himself time in and time out and deserves all of the recognition he can get.
KEEP HUGLEY ON THE FLOOR, GOOD THINGS HAPPEN
John Hugley came out of the gates ready to attack.
On the Panthers’ first offensive possession, Hugley broke down Louisville’s powerful big man Malik Williams, took him right to the rim, and finished a tough layup through contact for an and-one. He converted the free-throw, and it quickly looked like Louisville, especially Williams, was in for a long day down low.
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) January 15, 2022
However, shortly after, over the next seven minutes, Hugley picked up two fouls. While one was called when he was on the ground and did not appear to foul the opposition in any way, he was sent to the bench immediately by Capel, who did not want to risk Hugley picking up a third foul that early.
In the second half, Hugley once again came out firing. The 6-foot-9 monster took apart the Cardinals’ defense at will, scoring nine points in the first six minutes of the half.
Down the stretch was no different for the big man out of Cleveland.
Hugley continued to score down low, dished out the ball to his teammates, and everything in between. He finished his night with 19 points on 6-for-10 shooting, and also grabbed 7 rebounds in the win.
“It opens up a lot, because then they play one-on-one,” Hugley said after the game. “We all know what happens when they play one-on-one.”
Hugley’s importance to this Pitt team cannot be overstated. When Pitt has needed him most, he has answered the call. And without a doubt, he has become one of the most feared players in the ACC.
CAPEL EXPERIMENTING WITH ROTATION EARLY
Saturday’s matchup against Louisville was a big opportunity for a struggling Pitt squad to get back on track against a 10-6 Cardinals team, and Jeff Capel went with various different lineups throughout the game, especially the first half, to try to get the Panthers rolling.
While Odukale, Gueye, and Burton were on the court for practically the entire half, there were some other combinations and lineups out there that have not played together often this year.
Onye Ezeakudo got the start. William Jeffress came off the bench. Nate Santos and Chris Payton both saw the floor in the first half. Noah Collier, even though it was in a time in which Hugley had two fouls, played 12 strong minutes in the first frame.
Six different players scored in the first half, led by Burton with ten in the frame. Behind him, Gueye and Hugley put up five each, and then Odukale and Ezeakudo each scored three.
PANTHER DEFENSE HOLDS STRONG ONCE AGAIN
Once again, for the eighth time this season, Pitt held its opponent, this time Louisville, to less than 60 points.
The Panthers locked up the Cardinals all night, forcing a team that averaged over 70 points coming in to just 53 points in the win.
Louisville came into this game shooting 42.5% from the field as well as 32% from three-point range, but was held to just 33% from the field and 23% from three by the Panthers.
“That was the big emphasis, was the defense for us, in the second half away from our bench,” Burton said postgame. “Today, we stepped up to the plate, accepted the challenge by the coach and we showed up on the defensive end in the second half, really for the whole 40 minutes… When we talk, that helps our defense switch and communicate, and we did that today.”
ALTHOUGH LOUISVILLE IS NOT NECESSARILY ACC’S ELITE, STILL HUGE WIN FOR CAPEL
The Cardinals sit at No. 100 in Kenpom’s rankings. They are 4-3 in the ACC, and 10-7 overall. None of those are eye-popping numbers, especially for a program as well-known and well-respected as Louisville.
However, this win was just as big for Jeff Capel and co. as any other, especially this season, for several reasons.
Pitt was almost there all year. The Panthers have lost countless games that felt like they had control. They have fallen on all sorts of last minute, even last-second shots. Right when it seemed as thought the program was heading in the right direction after picking up a commitment and a win over Boston College, it fell to Syracuse by 16 in a blowout.
However, on Saturday, things started to trend back upwards.
On Saturday, Pitt dominated Louisville in most, if not all facets of the game. Hugley was a monster in the paint. Burton and Odukale combined for 30 from the guard spots. Gueye showed off his defensive excellence and added ten points.
All in front of a solid crowd at the Pete that included Pitt commit Marlon Barnes.