In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re thinking about the year that was, a rough week for hoops and a lot more.
THREE THINGS WE KNOWs
What a year
Let’s take a moment to reflect. 2020 isn’t over yet, but it will be by the time we publish next week’s 3-2-1 Column, so I thought we could talk about the year that was for a minute or two.
Generally speaking, I don’t usually think that “before-and-after” moments really exist the way we think of them.
Yes, sometime we look back at a key point in time and say, “That was when things changed.” With the benefit of hindsight, we can say, “There: that moment right there is when one thing ceased being what it was and became something else.”
But we do that in retrospect, taking a long look at the entirety of events and then picking out one moment where the specific change seemed to take place. In reality, though, it doesn’t usually happen that way. Things change far more gradually.
This year, there were some definite before-and-after moments, some key points in time where I sat up and said, “Whoa: things are getting a little nuts.”
The key date I’ll always remember – the day that truly felt, in the moment, like a before-and-after – was March 11. ESPN has been writing about that date recently and I think they’re even doing a podcast series on that date, but I’ve had that one circled in my mind basically since it happened.
By the time we got to March 11, we all knew things were getting bad with the COVID-19 pandemic. It had been building over the previous weeks, but I don’t think we really grasped where it would go. That day, we got a real handle on how widespread it was about to get, how much things were about to change.
Things snowballed pretty quickly, as NBA teams decided to play without fans and the NCAA conference tournaments followed suit, and the unthinkable was happening: major sports leagues were voluntarily giving up cash. Then it all blew up when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive.
That test canceled the Jazz’s game against Oklahoma City on March 11; within 24 hours, the NBA season was suspended, the conference tournaments were called off and then, in one of the most shocking moves I’ve ever seen, the NCAA Tournament was canceled.
March Madness is one of the biggest cash cows in sports, and in a flash, it was gone.
Locally, Pitt was on spring break on March 11, but before the week ended, the University announced that students should not come back to campus. The football team briefly entertained the idea of returning to resume spring camp, but those plans went on ice right quick.
In the span of about 24 hours – probably less, really – the entire spectrum of American sports screeched to a halt. And while games have been played and champions have been crowned since then, nothing has really come back to The Way It Was. And maybe it never will. Maybe some of the changes that have come about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic will be here to stay. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. We’ll render judgments on that down the road.
And I think we’ll always look back at March 11 as being the day when all hell truly broke loose.
What a year, pt. 2
Of course, in our little corner of the world here, the focus is on recruiting. And this has been the most absurd year in recruiting that I’ve ever seen.
Honestly, you can make a list of the key factors that influence recruiting in any given year, and almost every single one of them has been severely altered or thrown out the window altogether.
I mean, consider what a college coach’s recruiting year typically looks like:
January: Host recruits for visits – either senior prospects for official visits or underclassmen for unofficial visits
Okay, that one happened in 2020.
February: Sign seniors and host more underclassmen
That one happened, too. Hey, maybe 2020 wasn’t as screwed up as we thought.
March/April: Host underclassmen for visits during spring camp
Colleges got about a week out of that one, and the trend begins.
April/May: Go on the road to high schools for in-person evaluations
Nope. That went out the window.
June: Prospect camps and official visits
Those definitely didn’t happen.
July: Always a dead period
August: Bring recruits to training camp for visits
That didn’t happen.
September/October/November: Bring recruits to games for visits and go to high school games for in-person evaluations
That was all off the table.
December: In-home visits with recruits and official visits on campus
Not one of those things happened.
You’re talking about some huge pieces of the puzzle when it comes to recruiting, and they were all gone. Spring evaluations? June prospect camps? Fall evaluations? Official visits? In-home visits? Any in-person contact whatsoever between coach and recruit? All gone.
Recruits haven’t been allowed to go on recruiting visits since the middle of March, an extended dead period without precedent that kept prospects off campus during some of the most crucial periods in their recruitments, unless they made the trip of their own volition and absent any interaction with the coaching staff.
Not to be melodramatic, but the recruiting process was gutted this year, with all the elements that make up the process removed and replaced by Zoom meetings and FaceTime calls.
Quite frankly, the only thing that remained in recruiting – aside from on-field success and TV exposure, which certainly are important – was the relationships. Ultimately, recruiting really is about relationships: the relationships a coach builds with a recruit and his family. And while the pandemic took a lot out of the recruiting process, it didn’t take that.
More than ever, coaches had to rely on themselves to sell their school, and they have had to build the ever-important relationships over Zoom and FaceTime, where interactions count as conversations by definition only.
It has been a year like no other, and recruiting has been affected more than anything else in college football. Yes, the sport persevered and existed through upheaval, turmoil and outright chaos this season, but that was four months; recruiting has been persevering and existing through all of those things since March.
A whole new adversity
Moving from the broad view of the last year to the more specific view of the last week, things definitely took a turn for the Pitt basketball team with the news that Justin Champagnie and Au’Diese Toney will be out for varying periods of time due to injuries.
Toney missed Tuesday night’s loss to Louisville and is day-to-day moving forward with an ankle injury. Champagnie is a bit more severe; he’s out “six-to-eight weeks” with a knee injury.
So much for writing in last week’s column about how things are going well for Pitt athletics.
Look, there’s no sugar-coating it: these are two huge losses. Champagnie and Toney are Pitt’s top two scorers and they have been the Panthers’ two best players this season (they were the two best players on the team last year, too).
Take them off the team, and Pitt loses a whole lot of its punch, and it’s not just about scoring: Champagnie and Toney combined to average about 17 rebounds per game this season, so when Pitt got outrebounded by 19 against Louisville…well, those numbers line up pretty well.
There’s no question that the absences of Champagnie and Toney were felt on Tuesday night. Pitt recorded just eight offensive rebounds; those two guys grabbed an average of six offensive boards per game, so I don’t think I’m stretching to assume they would have had a little more success in that area against the Cardinals.
And while that game ended up being a 10-point loss for Pitt, it was much closer for most of the night (well, after the Panthers came back from a 24-9 deficit). Having Champagnie and Toney around to pick up a few more offensive rebounds and make a few more shots certainly could have swung the outcome.
But it’s not just about Tuesday night; it’s about what happens going forward. Toney’s day-to-day status means he could be back for next Tuesday’s game at Duke, I suppose. Champagnie’s six-to-eight-week status means he could be out until late February – if he ends up on the long end of that date range, he might not be back until the game against Clemson on Feb. 21, which would mean he’d play just three more games in the regular season.
Obviously Pitt is hoping for Champagnie to end up on the short end of that timeline. But no matter how many games he misses – seven games if he’s out six weeks; 11 if he’s out eight weeks – the big question is who will step up for the Panthers.
On Tuesday night, Femi Odukale answered the call, scoring 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting and playing a big part in bringing Pitt back into the game after the Panthers fell behind by 15 in the first half. That was a big boost and a surprising source of offense. Nike Sibande also looked like he was startings to settle in at Pitt, scoring eight points in a pretty solid performance that should lead to even more production.
And John Hugley continues to make incremental improvements. He had seven and seven against Louisville, including four offensive rebounds, and I think you can see his game coming more and more into focus. Hugley is figuring out how to play college basketball, and I think that learning process is going to continue with little signs and flashes every game.
The biggest key, in my view, is Xavier Johnson. If ever there was a time for the junior point guard to really take a step forward, it’s now. He showed up two years ago as a tough, driving guard who loved initiating contact whether he finished through it or drew a foul. His fearlessness and his style of play made him a fan favorite, but at some point, his game needs to evolve.
With Champagnie and Toney out, there’s only one member of Pitt’s big three active right now, and it’s Johnson. That means he needs to do more to help the Panthers win, but he also has to do less to jeopardize Pitt’s chances of winning. Take good shots, find teammates when they are open for good shots and don’t make dribbling into a defender the main offensive attack.
Right now, Johnson has been charged with 23 fouls in seven games – the second-most on the team – and he has 36 assists offset by 25 turnovers. Against Louisville, he scored 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting and had three turnovers with no assists while fouling out.
That’s not the kind of play Pitt needs from him right now.
There’s part of me that thinks it will be fun to watch some of the younger players develop over the next few weeks – Odukale, Hugley, William Jeffress, even a younger upperclassman like Abdoul Karim Coulibaly or Ithiel Horton. The development of those players will be key to keeping things afloat without Champagnie and Toney. But Johnson’s play is arguably even more important. He’s simply got to be better.
TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE
What does it mean to have Pickett back?
This news came last week, but we spent the bulk of last week’s column on recruiting, so I figured we could spend a few minutes here discussing it.
First of all, Kenny Pickett’s decision to return to Pitt for one more season was a bit of a surprise. I had heard that he was considering a return, but it still seemed more likely that he was going to leave for the NFL.
Now he’s back, and I think there are more than a few points of impact from that decision.
The biggest thing Pickett’s return does for Pitt is it answers possibly the biggest question facing the Panthers for 2021.
Despite the losses of key personnel at defensive end, safety and along the offensive line, the impending change at quarterback was the biggest roster move entering next season, and unlike those other spots (for the most part), it came with no clear answer.
We all know the contenders: Joey Yellen, Davis Beville, Nick Patti, Nate Yarnell. Odds are, it was going to be Yellen or Beville; we saw a little bit of both guys this season – more Yellen than Beville – and neither one inspired a lot of confidence for next year.
I actually thought Yellen was okay in the loss at Miami, but he was pretty rough a week later against Notre Dame, and Beville saw such limited reps that it’s tough to tell what Pitt has in the former four-star prospect from South Carolina.
So that was a big question facing the team for 2021, and now it has been answered. Say what you will about Pickett, but he’s a sure thing. You know what you’re going to get and it’s one less thing to worry about heading into the season. I also think Pickett can continue improving and should have a better season in 2021 than he had this year.
There are more impacts, though. I think a subset of the question about who would win the starting quarterback in spring 2021 was the idea that whichever player came out of spring camp as the No. 2 might look to transfer. That’s just the nature of quarterbacks these days in college football: at a certain point, they’re going to leave if they don’t see a direct path to starting. Spring camp 2021 was going to make the pecking order pretty clear, I think, and I imagine there would have been some fallout.
Now, it’s a bit less clear. As was the case last year, everybody’s battling for top reserve role, and while that hierarchy could lead to a transfer, I’m not quite as confident about it as I was before.
If Pickett had left, then a starter would have emerged during spring camp and the backup very well may have transferred. But with Pickett back for another year, the competition for his successor is pushed back another year, too. Yellen and Beville and Patti will battle for that job in spring 2022, which means that unless they believe they can walk into a starting job at a new school this season, then they might as well stick around (provided they like living in Pittsburgh and all of that).
I also think Pickett’s return takes the potential for adding a transfer quarterback off the table. I don’t know how deep the staff had gone on looking for transfer candidates, but I’m sure they were exploring it.
Now, they don’t need to explore any longer. For one more year, it’s status quo.
How much more will Pitt add to the 2021 roster?
I planned to use this section of the column to look at potential additions to the 2021 roster, be they recruits or transfers.
I didn’t expect to have two spots filled before we got to Friday.
But that’s how it went, as Pitt added two more players – one a high school recruit, one a transfer – on Thursday, a Christmas Eve haul that interrupted some serious cookie-making in the Peak household.
A quick note: I’m writing this column late Thursday afternoon and I don’t plan to revise it on Friday because, you know, it’s Christmas. As of this writing, the recruit who committed had not made his public announcement, and while we’re pretty sure of who it is and he has been discussed on the message board, we’ll respect his intentions to announce the commitment on his own.
The transfer made his announcement, though, and it was Maryland offensive lineman Marcus Minor. A former four-star prospect from DeMatha, Minor was a Pitt target in the class of 2017 and he visited campus during his high school years, but the Panthers didn’t make his final cut and he ultimately picked Maryland.
Fast-forward four years and Minor has made 18 starts while appearing in 25 games with the Terrapins, including a bunch of playing time as a true freshman. He missed a decent number of games due to injuries the last few seasons, but he was a season-opening starter in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Meanwhile, two of the coaches who recruited him to Maryland – offensive line coach Dave Borbely and receivers coach Chris Beatty – are now at Pitt, and the Panthers still have the same head coach who met with Minor on his visit back in high school.
So when Minor went looking for a new home this offseason, Pitt checked a lot of boxes, so to speak, and three days after he entered the transfer portal, he picked the Panthers.
What is Pitt getting in Minor? A 6’4” 315-pound lineman with experience playing both guard and tackle. He’ll most likely line up at guard for the Panthers – I’m guessing left guard, but we’ll see – and he really gives Borbely even more versatility to work with as he aims to not just fill the vacancies at center and left guard but also to find the best five linemen.
With Minor and the new commit on board, then, how much more will Pitt add to the 2021 roster? I think the coaches will look for at least one more transfer, but I’m not sure if there will be many more additions from the high school ranks. The Panthers have 21 scholarship spots opening due to seniors on the 2020 roster – even if some or all of those seniors return, they won’t count against the 85-man limit in 2021 – and when you add in Paris Ford’s departure, that leaves 22 vacant spots, which the Panthers almost filled on Signing Day last week.
As such, the two new additions mean that more spots will have to come open from the current slate of 63 scholarship players who could return in 2021. And any more underclassman transfers or high school recruits who pick Pitt will need a corresponding move as well. I could see one or two more additions, but probably not much beyond that.
Lasting image of 2020
Okay, like I said, it’s Christmas Eve as I’m writing this, so I’m not inclined to spend too much time in this final section of the column. But it is our final 3-2-1 Column of 2020, so we should at least commemorate that in some way.
Every year, I try to test my memory by thinking of a lasting image. What is that one indelible photo, that play or moment that will always survive as a representation of the year that was?
Typically, my memory isn’t too good. It’s all I can do to remember what happened last week, let alone what happened three or six or nine or 12 months ago.
This year, though, I think it’s fairly easy, and I don’t have to test my powers of recall too much to conjure up the lasting image of 2020.
Because when we think back on this year, when we reflect on what happened in Pitt sports – and the larger world of sports, and the larger world altogether – it’s pretty clear what we’re going to think of, what we’re going to reflect on.
It’s social distancing. It’s shutdowns. It’s Zoom calls. So many Zoom calls. It’s games being postponed, games being canceled and games being played under the strangest of circumstances.
It’s a year unlike any we’ve ever seen before. So here’s my photo of the year, the image that will stick with me, that will always define what 2020 was for sports.
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