Despite Pitt’s success throughout the first half of this season, Jeff Capel couldn’t have expected that he would be 12-6 overall and 5-2 in the ACC with just nine scholarship players.
Just weeks before the season started, last year’s leading scorer and All-ACC honorable mention John Hugley injured his knee, causing him to sit out for six weeks and eventually miss some of Pitt’s first few games. Once he came back, Hugley was not the same player as he was dealing with physical adjustments stemming from his injury and mental adjustments as well. Fast forward to Saturday, and after he had missed Pitt’s last six games due to personal reasons, Hugley announced that he would be sitting out for the remainder of the year.
But despite not having Hugley, who spent the preseason and eight games this year with the team on the court, the Panthers are sitting at 12-6 and are receiving more national attention with every win.
Of course, the main focus is and should be on making sure Hugley’s health improves and that he gets back on track. But with Hugley announcing that he will sit out the rest of the year, what does this mean for the Panthers on the court?
Obviously, Hugley, when healthy, is one of the most dominant players in the conference. His bully-ball mentality and play style earned him All-ACC honors despite earning double-teams just about every game last year. HIs physicality and finishing ability stood out among other skills, and in this year’s games that he did play in, he hit five of his ten threes, showcasing an improved outside game. At full health, Hugley is a monster, and can still play at that level next year. But for now, Pitt is certainly going to miss him while he is recovering.
Federiko Federiko has become the face of Pitt’s young front court in the absence of Hugley, and he has surpassed the expectations of many so far with his performance.
In conference play, Federiko is averaging 4.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 49% from the field. While he is still a young player, the Finnish big man has been praised by his teammates for his hard work, his screen-setting, rim-protecting, and more. He brings a lot to the table, and it especially helps that he stands at 6-foot-11 with length and athleticism to run the floor with this guard-heavy Panthers group. However, with all of that being said, he is not going to over-power any ACC team offensively just yet. The young big man has been a tremendous help for Pitt, but he is just not that type of player as a sophomore.
Federiko’s minutes have skyrocketed since Hugley has been out. After playing 30+ minutes just once in the first 13 games of the season, he has now surpassed the 30-minute mark in four of Pitt’s last six games. Pitt will continue to use him as a rim-running, lob-catching big on offense, as well as a rim-protecting, screen-hedging big on D.
Rookie Guillermo Diaz-Graham will also play a big role for Pitt if Federiko gets in foul trouble, needs a breather, or gets injured going forward. After Guillermo, Jorge Diaz-Graham is the only other player with the length and height to compete with other ACC bigs, despite his guard play style. With such a thin front court this year, Pitt will really have to rely on wings Nate Santos and Blake Hinson to step up to the plate down low.
Hinson has battled some of the league’s best bigs so far this season, and has held his own. Santos, a 6-foot-7, 210-pound wing, is sturdily built and has seen ten or more minutes of action in three of Pitt’s last four games to help out behind Hinson.
If teams begin to attack the Panthers inside, they are going to have to win it behind their veteran guards and Hinson, while receiving as much effort (and it’s been solid so far) as Federiko, Santos, and the twins can give inside and on the glass.