In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re thinking about the big news of the week and what It means for the Pitt basketball program.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
A bad look
I suppose things could have taken a worse turn at midweek.
But at this very moment, after a disaster of a week, it’s hard to imagine.
You know the news already: Pitt lost two of its three best players in the span of about 24 hours, with Xavier Johnson going into the transfer portal on Wednesday and Au’Diese Toney following him on Thursday.
It’s hard to put into words how bad this looks for Jeff Capel and the Pitt men’s basketball program, but I’ll try.
I think the biggest thing is that the departures of Johnson and Toney aren’t the only things. They’re the most recent developments and they carry a ton of weight, both for this season and beyond, but they’re only the latest in what’s becoming an increasingly longer and more concerning trend.
There was Trey McGowens transferring last year. That was a shot, but not an entirely unexpected one, since McGowens seemed to want a different role with a different program.
There was the post-Duke slide this year, where Pitt turned one of the program’s highest points in years into a 1-7 stretch with some of the program’s worst losses in years.
There was the John Hugley suspension, where a four-star freshman at a position of need showed promise on the court and then was arrested for a couple of felonies and his future with the program was left very much up in the air.
There’s the ongoing matter of recruiting, where Pitt’s commitment list for the 2021 class is empty despite having, at last glance, four open scholarship spots and counting.
Now there’s the Johnson and Toney transfers, two major strikes against the program that, when compounded with everything else that has happened in the last 11 months, build a pretty big pile of you-know-what.
And it’s all concerning. As someone asked on the message board Thursday afternoon, “Three years of Jeff Capel and this is where we are?”
I can’t say I entirely disagree with the sentiment. I have said all along that Capel took over a monumental rebuild, that it was going to take time to get the program on solid ground again and even longer to be competitive in the ACC. I still believe that and I have tried to avoid pushing the bar of expectations too high.
But when you get this cascade of negative developments, this onslaught of indications that things are not only not moving forward but either stuck in place or, even worse, going backward…
Okay, I’m going to stop for a second. They’re not going backward. They’re not getting better but they are still not at the level of the program Jeff Capel inherited. That program went winless in the ACC; Capel has done better than that every year. We can talk about the progress he has or hasn’t built, but we’re not going to go so far as to say that the program is in the same state it was when he arrived.
Then again, I’m looking at the roster for next season and…
Look, we’ll see what Capel can add this offseason. Transfers – guys coming into the Pitt program – are obviously going to be a big part of it. At some point, I think, they’re going to get some recruits, too. When the roster construction is complete, we can evaluate what Capel builds and talk about what that team might do and all of that.
But for now, we can only see what we can see, and it doesn’t look good.
The other side
Okay, let me set up the timeline here:
That last section was written Thursday afternoon in the hour or so between Au’Diese Toney’s announcement and when I went live for a special episode of the Panther-Lair Show (you can watch that here).
This section is being written on Friday morning, after sleeping on the news, giving it more thought and gathering more insight. And while I can’t say my overall opinion has changed – this still looks pretty bad – I do think I’ve mellowed a bit in my reaction.
The one thing that sticks out to me is the concept of a mutual agreement. Johnson and Toney didn’t just run off; their departures were the product of meetings with Capel, and both decisions were termed “mutual” in the press releases announcing them.
I think that’s relevant. To me, it means this wasn’t solely an issue between the players and their coach; it was probably that, but it was also something Capel at least partially wanted, ostensibly in the best interests of his team.
We can debate whether or not the on-court team is better or worse without Johnson and Toney – and we’ll get a first look at that iteration on Sunday – but none of us really has a perspective on what the scene was like off the court.
Were there problems in the locker room? Were there chemistry issues and personality issues? Were things amiss with the culture? It’s hard for any of us to know for sure what was going on when the team left the court, but those kinds of things certainly explain some of the inexplicable nature of this year’s squad.
How could they go from beating Duke and starting the ACC schedule 4-1 to losing seven of the next eight? How could they play awful in one half and great in the next? How could they juxtapose a blowout loss to Notre Dame with an upset win over Virginia Tech?
This was a frustratingly confounding team, and nothing really seemed to make sense as an explanation for why they were so frustrating, so confounding.
I’m not saying Johnson and Toney are the elusive rationale, the explanation for how the team could be so inconsistent, so unpredictable. But maybe team chemistry was. Maybe the interaction of the roster was. Maybe moving forward with this roster as it was became untenable. That could explain both the mutual nature of the departures and the fact that they happened with three games left in the regular season.
None of this is to absolve Jeff Capel of his role in the situation. He assembled the roster and, as the head coach, he is ultimately responsible for managing it; we’ll talk about that in a moment. But with the information we have – admittedly, limited information from the outside – I don’t think it’s crazy to see this as a case where moves were made with the best interests of the team at heart. We’ll see if it works out that way.
The original impact of Johnson and Toney
We’ll talk about what it means for Pitt to move forward without Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney, but let’s take a second to think back on what it meant for Pitt to get those guys in the first place.
We all remember what it looked like in the era of Pitt basketball before Capel arrived. Pitt went from being the butt of jokes on the national stage for hiring Kevin Stallings to falling off the radar of college basketball almost entirely (save for such classics as “At least we didn’t pay our guys $100,000″). By the time Capel was hired in the spring of 2018, there wasn’t much interest in Pitt basketball whatsoever.
This is the reality of college hoops: if you’re not a blue blood – or something close to it – then you better win at a pretty consistent level or you’re going to be ignored. Pitt was winning a lot in the first decade of this century, and the winning canceled out the non-blue-blood-ness.
Take the winning away, and you’ve got a program whose history isn’t deep enough to sustain interest. So Pitt hoops became a forgotten entity.
Enter Jeff Capel, who took over a program that hadn’t won a conference game in more than a year and a roster full of players who were highly perturbed by the handling of Stallings’ removal from Pitt.
It wasn’t an impossible situation, but it was damn close to it.
Then, in April, about a month after Capel was hired, he convinced four-star guard Trey McGowens to reclassify from the 2019 class back to 2018 and sign with Pitt. That was huge. Less than a week later, Capel added a commitment from Johnson, who had signed with Nebraska but got out of his release due to an assistant coach leaving. A month later, Capel convinced Toney to reclassify and join the 2018 recruiting class.
After less than two months on the job, Capel had given Pitt fans three big reasons to believe things were turning around. Obviously, the path since then hasn’t been all roses, you know, since all three guys have transferred, but remember, if you will, what it was like the spring of 2018, when Capel took over a moribund program and convinced two guys to reclassify and got a third to sign after backing away from Nebraska.
Those three guys represented the promise of the Capel era. That was the kind of juice he was bringing to the job. To Pitt. That’s what the Panthers could expect.
Again, we know it hasn’t all been great since then, and I know the current circumstances during which I’m writing this. But those three commitments meant a whole lot at that point in time, and I don’t think that should be forgotten.
TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE
The Capel question
You know the question, right?
More importantly, and more relevantly, you know who has to actually ask the question, right?
It’s not you and it’s not me and it’s not on Twitter and it’s not on the message board.
It’s Heather Lyke, Pitt’s Director of Athletics, who has no doubt heard from more than a few fans this week expressing their concerns about the direction of the basketball program. Fans look at transfers and indefinite suspensions and a bad trend of sliding in the second half of the season and not making the NCAA Tournament and not having a commitment in the 2021 recruiting class and say, “This is a disaster, light a match and burn the whole thing down.”
That’s what fans do. And that’s fine for fans to do. That’s their job: to be fans.
Athletic directors and directors of athletics have a different job. They have the job of gathering as much information as possible and using it to make an informed decision about the direction of their school’s athletic programs.
So Heather Lyke, you’re up.
She’s the one who has to answer the question: Does Jeff Capel have the program on the right track?
Like I said before, you know my thoughts on the job Capel has had to do. You know what I think of the situation he inherited, and I’ve said all along that time would be a crucial element in his rebuild.
I still think that, to a large extent. But it’s one thing to use the time commitment for a rebuild as as a way to deflect from losses like the St. Francis game or the Wake Forest game or the Notre Dame game. It’s something else altogether to apply it to the current state of things – and the succession of events over the last 11 months.
That trend is what’s troubling, and it’s what makes this a very important stretch of time for Heather Lyke.
I’m not advocating one course of action or the other here. What I am saying is that Lyke is going to have to take a long, hard look at where the men’s basketball program is, what Capel’s plan is to pull out of the tailspin and how confident she is in his ability to do it.
Now, I am sure there have been or will be some private conversations between Lyke and Capel where the latter lays out, in detail, just what led things to their current state. And those conversations will offer context for the decisions that Lyke makes.
I do think it’s possible that Capel could lay out an explanation that involves issues in the locker room, like I mentioned earlier. I don’t know if that explanation will be offered, or if there’s any validity to it. But the underlying point remains: Capel needs to give Lyke a full understanding of what’s going on and how the situation is going to improve.
What happened with Xavier Johnson?
I thought there was a chance that Xavier Johnson might choose not to return to Pitt for his final year of eligibility, but I thought he would make that decision after the season, not with three games left.
But, as with so many things in Johnson’s career, I guess we can look at it and say, “Well, I kind of understand why you did that, but it probably wasn’t the best decision.”
Actually, I shouldn’t say that. It’s not for me to say whether Johnson is making the best decision in leaving Pitt. Jeff Capel called it a mutual decision in Pitt’s official press release announcing the transfer, and I believe him: I think both parties were more or less done with each other.
It’s a shame, too, because it wasn’t all that long ago that Johnson was a freshman, an exciting young point guard with toughness and moxie, ready to be The Guy who lifts Pitt basketball from its rock bottom to new heights. There was so much promise and excitement in his first year; two years later…not so much.
The thing that stands out to me the most is that Johnson never really seemed to develop or progress. The numbers shifted a bit over the course of three seasons, but on the whole, Johnson in 2020-21 looked to be just about the same player he was in 2018-19.
The one exception this season I could point to wasn’t a good one. Johnson fouled out three times this season; that seems like a lot for a point guard. And he took three technical fouls in a short span over the last month.
That’s not good, and you could see Capel’s frustration mounting. From the foul trouble to the technical fouls to the turnovers to the bad habit of putting his team in less-than-ideal situations, Johnson was mercurial, at best, this season.
What’s worse, so many of Johnson’s fouls seemed to be born out of frustration, and that’s where it does overlap with the technical fouls, because the junior guard certainly seemed to let his emotions get the better of him.
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a “good technical foul,” but Johnson’s weren’t it. They were frustration plays, lose-your-cool plays and the kinds of outbursts that third-year starters can’t have. Johnson was counted on to be a leader for his team; instead, he all too often put them in a bad spot.
But here’s where I get hung up, because the emotions, the fire – those things that led to the dumb fouls or bad technicals, they were also some of the things that drove him to have success. He played with emotion, he played with passion, he played with intensity; no matter what you want to say about Xavier Johnson, he was willing to give everything he had for his team. It just didn’t always work out.
Eventually, it seemingly became too much for Capel to deal with. And Capel’s approach to handling those issues, from benching Johnson to calling him out publicly (and probably plenty more behind closed doors), seemingly became too much for Johnson to deal with.
So Johnson is leaving. He’ll probably end up in a Power Five conference for his final season or seasons, if he chooses to play two more years. We’ll watch him from afar, of course, and we’ll hope that his next stop doesn’t end the way this one did.
If nothing else, this will be interesting
Okay. Johnson and Toney are gone.
Now, we get to see what else this roster has.
In a way, this is the fulfillment of every college sports fan’s dream. How often do you hear a fan – football, basketball, any sport – say, “Let’s see what the young guys can do.”
Well, we’re about to find out.
The first thing we’ll all be watching now is how Pitt replaces Johnson. The most obvious candidate – the only candidate, really – is freshman Femi Odukale. He is averaging 4.2 points and 2.0 assists while playing 17.2 minutes per game. He’s got a solid shooting percentage – 43.1% – but he offers very little from outside the arc.
That’s okay, though, at least for now. Pitt will need to improve its outside shooting sometime soon, but to get through the next three games and whatever comes beyond that, the Panthers need someone to run the point, and Odukale is the guy.
That’s actually the easy part. The more difficult thing to figure out is who else will play the point. Odukale won’t play 40 minutes every night, obviously, so who else is going to chip in there? I guess Nike Sibande will get some time. He played pretty well in the Florida State game and showed some promise after not getting a lot of time earlier this season.
I wonder about Ithiel Horton, too. He has played a ton so he’s got plenty of experience; perhaps that could translate into him giving some quality minutes at the point from time to time. Pitt is at its best with Horton working off the ball, but right now, the staff has to find some answers and Horton could potentially chip in.
We’ll probably see Onyebuchi Ezeakudo get some work there, too. He played some minutes at the point last year, and while he’s a walk-on, he’s also a junior with experience, so I imagine he’ll be involved.
Honestly, while I’m very interested in seeing what Odukale does at the point with starter’s minutes, I’m even more curious about Toney’s spot. You have to imagine four of the five starting spots will be filled by Odukale, Horton, Justin Champagne and Abdoul Karim Coulibaly, but that leaves one opening, and I’m not sure what will happen there.
Sibande could potentially start if Capel wants to go with a three-guard lineup (which we saw a bit of in the Florida State game). But I could see him resisting that idea in order to bring Sibande off the bench and give Odukale or Horton some rest.
Maybe this is a moment for Will Jeffress. The freshman wing has seen sparse playing time as he grows and develops, but there’s an opening for someone to play small forward, and like I said before, maybe this is the point where the young guys get some playing time.
If nothing else, the rest of this season will be interesting to watch – both for the outcomes and for what this team could look like next year. With at least four open scholarship spots, the roster is going to be quite different next fall, but these three games will shed some light on what the Panthers will be bringing back.
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