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In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re thinking about all the news for Pitt hoops in a busy week.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

The first blow
Basically, there were four big pieces of news for Pitt hoops this week: two of them were good and two were not so good. And we need to talk about all four of them.

So let’s go in chronological order. Let’s start at the start. And the start was a false start when Efton Reid’s commitment last Friday ended up actually being a commitment on Sunday. Somehow it was fitting that the five-star center prospect delayed his commitment 24 hours; after all, that was the second delay in a recruitment that has seemed to be delayed for the better part of the last six months.

You all know the outcome here: Reid committed to LSU on Sunday, leaving Pitt holding the bag – that’s probably a less-than-ideal idiom for this particular situation – and looking for answers once again.

There is a lot to say about Reid shunning Pitt. One thing I’ll start with is that Pitt didn’t lose Reid for lack of effort, and I don’t even think it’s a product of poor recruiting. Yes, I know we’re all results-oriented and that’s ultimately all that matters. But Pitt did some strong work recruiting Reid: no other staff put in more time or built stronger relationships with Reid than Pitt did.

I don’t think Reid talked to any other head coach more than Jeff Capel, and his connections with the Panthers date back at least two years.

The relationships were strong and the recruitment was executed about as well as it could be. Not well enough, of course, since Pitt lost Reid, but I don’t take his decision as a blanket indictment on the staff.

And in the aftermath of Reid’s commitment – even in the run-up to it – I think a lot of the concerns about Pitt’s approach stemmed from the matter of not having a backup plan if Reid went elsewhere. I understand that criticism, but I also think Pitt was in a tough spot: backup plans at center aren’t really growing on trees at this point in the process.

If Reid had committed to LSU in November or at some point over the winter, then Capel and company would have had plenty of time to find another option in the high school ranks. But Reid didn’t commit then, and Pitt hitched its wagon to him – up to and until the point when Reid pulled his wagon into Baton Rouge.

I would say that Pitt made an educated gamble. The coaches felt good about their chances with Reid based on the strength of the relationship and what Reid was telling them. Part of recruiting is reading a situation and planning your actions accordingly; that’s what Pitt did, and in this case, the read on Reid went the other way.

There are more things to say about this situation, from the next step for Capel to what it means for the team as a whole, but I’ll finish the Efton Reid talk with this:

Pitt needs to keep working to get elite talent. Yes, the roster will largely be filled with three-star recruits and the occasional four-star prospects – that’s what the staff has done thus far and will continue to do going forward – but you still have to try to get some big-time players. You don’t have to spend all your time on the top 25 recruits in the class, but you do need to identify the guys you have a connection with, the guys who are realistic possibilities and try to get them.

Finding a solid group of mid-rated guys who can form the foundation and then topping them off with an elite player or two – that’s a formula that can lead to success. So even though Efton Reid went to LSU and RJ Davis went to North Carolina and a bunch of those targets in Capel’s first class went elsewhere – I don’t think those examples mean Pitt should stop trying.

They just have to get one to go their way.

The second blow
So that was Sunday. Monday brought more fun.

Once again, you know the news: Justin Champagnie announced that he would be going to the NBA.

I don’t know if this was expected or not. We all knew it was possible; that’s obvious, since Champagnie had made it public that he was going to enter the draft process, although he hadn’t fully committed to leaving college. Different mock drafts said different things about Champagnie as a prospect; the consensus seemed to be – seems to be – that he’s not a lottery pick and not a first-round pick. He might not even be a sure thing as a draft pick at all, but the truth is, I’m not here to tell Justin Champagnie what he should do.

Could he have elevated his draft stock with another year in college? Perhaps. Maybe he could have shown more as a shooter or done more in attacking off the dribble. But he could have also run the risk of injury, and that risk is fairly tangible since he has had knee injuries each of the last two seasons.

So it probably makes sense for Champagnie to go; even if he ends up playing in Europe or something, he’ll be collecting a paycheck, and that’s the ultimate motivation, I would think.

From the outside, the first reaction to the Champagnie news was obviously disappointment: fans wanted Champagnie back for another season, and Pitt’s chances for success seemingly decreased by a fair amount when he decided not to return.

Add in the fact that Champagnie’s announcement came less than 24 hours after Reid committed to LSU, and you get a pretty rough news cycle. Never mind the good news that came later: losing a five-star center and a double-double machine in short order made people understandably cranky.

There’s a slight upside with Champagnie, though.

A common theme I’ve seen this offseason is Pitt fans looking for any positives with the current Pitt coaching staff. That’s not to say that every Pitt fan thinks every thing is bad, but a lot of them think a lot of things are bad.

Well, I think part of Champagnie’s story is pretty good. He came to Pitt as a somewhat unheralded recruit and became not just an early departure but one of the best players in the ACC.

I don’t think anyone saw that coming, and I think it’s a credit to the staff for identifying Champagnie’s potential and helping him develop that potential.

I think there are a few stories like that. I think the staff should get some credit for the progress Xavier Johnson made in his career, too, as well as Au’Diese Toney. I think they also did a good job finding Femi Odukale, and this season will give some real insight into how they’ve developed him.

Now, I’ll be honest: the development of Champagnie is more of a feel-good story than a real-world benefit. The real-world impact of his development is that he won’t be on the team this season, which makes 2021-22 more of a challenge than it otherwise would have been with him.

But if you’re looking for positives – any positives – with the current state of Pitt basketball, I think that’s one.

A positive turn
Okay, finally to the good news for Pitt hoops this week.

A few hours after Champagnie and a day after Reid both announced they wouldn’t be on Pitt’s roster this season, the Panthers added a piece to the roster in the person of Chris Payton. He’s a forward at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa who was committed to Southern Illinois in high school until he backed off that commitment and went the junior college route.

Now, two years later, Payton was looking for high-major opportunities and found one at Pitt. As a 6’7” forward with a 7’0” wingspan, he’s got the versatility and size to play a few different positions for the Panthers, and I can see him lining up at both spots in the front court (we’ll get into that more in a minute).

Payton has hops; highlight films are what they are, but on his tape from Indian Hills, Payton looks like he might become the best dunker on Pitt’s roster the moment he steps onto campus. He’s tenacious in going after rebounds, too, and he really makes it tough to get shots near the basket, as evidenced by his 2.3 blocks per game. Payton even has a bit of ability to step out and knock down a three. That’s a nice tool to have, but Pitt won’t necessarily need that from him.

What the Panthers need is someone who can be active around the rim: collect rebounds, get some put-backs, finish when the guards dish to him near the basket and block shots well enough to deter opponents from driving in the lane,

I don’t expect Payton to lead the ACC in any stat categories – maybe blocks – but he has enough natural skills to be a reliable piece of Pitt’s rotation on both ends of the court and could end up being a pretty nice addition to the roster over the next three years (I know, you can’t assume anybody will be around more than a year or two these days, but Payton has three years so we’ll speak in those terms, at least for now).

Here’s the other thing about Payton:

A lot of people have criticized Capel and company for not having a backup option in the event that Reid committed elsewhere. I think there’s some nuance and context in that situation, and I mentioned some of it earlier in this column, but the overall theme of the staff misreading a situation and not being ready for it to go the other way is one that fans have discussed quite frequently.

I think the Payton situation is a counterpoint. Pitt has been aware of Payton for a little while and had contact with him, but it wasn’t exactly a strong pursuit. Then, when the staff started to sense in recent weeks that Champagnie was likely going leave for the NBA, they picked it up with Payton.

And by the time Champagnie made his decision Monday morning, Capel and company were ready to move on Payton.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Champagnie’s NBA announcement and Payton’s Pitt commitment happened on the same day. One power forward walked out the door and another walked in. That’s not to say Payton will replace Champagnie’s production, but he fills a hole on the roster and in the rotation. And I think he’s got some good potential, too, so overall, I think it’s a quality addition.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

How big Is Hugley’s return?
Okay, news item No. 4 was another good one:

John Hugley’s felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors, which opened the door for his return to the Pitt basketball roster for the first time since he was suspended indefinitely on Jan. 15.

I think that’s fairly significant.

Look, I said earlier this spring – multiple times – that there were three big questions facing Pitt in the offseason:

1. Can the Panthers find a center?

2. Will Justin Champagnie return?

3.What will happen with John Hugley?

We’ve already talked about the negative answers to the first two, but the third one appears to be heading in Pitt’s favor.

I know Hugley didn’t show a whole lot last season: he played in just seven games prior to his suspension (his last game was on Dec. 22 and his suspension came on Jan. 15; in between those two dates, Pitt had four games postponed). Hugley averaged 5.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in his seven appearances while playing 14.9 minutes.
That’s not great, but it’s not bad for a freshman’s collegiate debut, particularly when the freshman in question had a less-than-usual offseason of preparation thanks to the chaos of COVID.

Hugley did finish his freshman season with a fairly good performance, posting a 7-and-7 line in a loss to Louisville. Now Pitt needs him to do things like that over the course of a full season.

As is the case with a lot of players on the roster this year, the expectations for Hugley are largely based on potential: he could develop into this, he could develop into that. But he’s got a good pedigree, he came to Pitt with a fairly high ceiling and in some different moments last season, he showed some flashes where you saw what he could become.

It’s no sure thing, but sure things are hard to find, especially in college basketball, and it’s still better to have Hugley on the roster than to not have him.

And here’s the other thing: after getting Payton, I thought there was one more thing Pitt had to do this offseason. They had to get a center from the transfer portal. It probably wasn’t going to be a great player, and almost certainly not someone with the potential that Hugley seems to have. But they had to get a center, just for the sake of having one. Going into the season with the entirety of the center depth consisting of Payton, Max Amadasun and possibly transfer Dan Oladapo, who would also be undersized at the five, just didn’t seem to be viable.

So they had to find someone. But now, with Hugley back, that pressure comes off a bit. They still could take a center, should a good one be available. But they could also take a power forward. Or a wing.

Really, whatever quality player Capel and his staff can find – they can take them. They have more flexibility in that pursuit of a final addition to the roster now than when they had to take a center.

What will the roster look like?
Okay, so with Hugley back and three offseason additions on board, where does this roster stand right now?

You’ve got the guards: Femi Odukale, Nike Sibande, Ithiel Horton, Jamarius Burton

You’ve got the small forwards: Will Jeffress, Nate Santos

You’ve got the power forwards: Chris Payton, Dan Oladapo, Noah Collier

You’ve got the centers: John Hugley, Max Amadasun

Okay. That’s a roster.

What can Jeff Capel do with it?

For starters, I think some guys in there can move around to different spots. Like we said before, Payton could play the 4 or the 5. Oladapo could play the 5. Sibande could play the 3. Burton could play either guard spot. So could Odukale. Jeffress could play the 4 in a smaller lineup.

There are a bunch of ways this rotation could go, and the coaches have a fair amount of versatility to toy around with.

Want to play small? That can happen. Want to play big? That can happen, too; even if Pitt doesn’t have a seven-footer at center, the Panthers could still go with something like a point guard and then four other guys all over 6’6” or 6’7”.

So you could start with Odukale-Sibande-Jeffress-Oladapo-Hugley. That could be the starting lineup. Then you could bring in Horton to either replace Sibande or line up at the 2 with Odukale and Sibande both still on the court. Burton could also rotate in with any of them.

Payton could come off the bench at the 4 or the 5, where his length and athleticism will allow him to compete. And guys like Santos (a scoring threat) or Collier and Amadasun (developing young forwards) could chip in a few minutes here or there.

I don’t think know where that roster would finish in the ACC, but it’s a rather full roster – one that doesn’t have any giant holes. There are varying degrees of talent among the positions, and there are still some depth issues, but there’s enough in there to field a team and compete.

I don’t think anyone thought Pitt would go into the season with only six or seven players, but there were certainly points this offseason when concerns about a shorthanded roster seemed prevalent.

One way or another – high school, JUCO, transfer – Capel has put together a roster. There will likely be one more addition and we’ll see how that player fits in. But I think what we see now is the group of players who will take the court for Pitt this season.

ONE PREDICTION

This team will go as the guards go
Through all of this, through the attrition and the missing out on recruits to the additions of transfers and prospects, there’s one thought that has been a constant:

Pitt’s success in the 2021-22 season will hinge on the guards.

If Femi Odukale and Nike Sibande and Ithiel Horton and Jamarius Burton play well, Pitt will have a good season (however we want to define that). If they struggle, the team will struggle.

Okay, I know that’s obvious analysis. Everybody knows that guards are important to a team’s success, and this team is no different. But I think there’s extra emphasis this year for Pitt.

Last season, the Panthers didn’t exactly run their offense through Justin Champagnie, but he produced a whole lot of it. With him gone and uncertainty about the production Pitt will get out of his position, the emphasis shifts to the back court. The guards will have to pick up the slack and carry the team.

That’s not to say that the forwards won’t be expected to contribute. Hugley’s return was a positive story because of what he can do – or what he has the potential to do – on the court. Payton looks like he can be a presence in the lane and around the rim. Will Jeffress could become a do-a-little-bit-of-everything guy for Pitt and make more than a few plays to win games.

All of those guys are important. Games will turn on their performances.

But it still comes back to the guards.

The tricky thing about figuring out what to expect from this team is that a lot of the players come with a number of what-if uncertainties. So Odukale will be the starting point guard; okay. But what has he shown? He started five games last season; when he started at N.C. State, he scored 18 and handed out five assists. Two days later, he started against Wake Forest and scored five points. And in the season-ending loss to Miami, he had 28 on 11-of-16 shooting. There are some encouraging numbers in there, but if you are hesitant to crown him because his resume is rather short, I can’t entirely disagree.

Sibande is the same way. In the final five games of the season, he averaged 15 and 6 and that’s a great stat line. But in the other nine games he played last year, he averaged 2 and 1.

Was his strong finish to the season a product of him getting settled in? Is that an indication of what he can do on a consistent basis this season? Maybe. But again, it’s a small sample size – probably too small to assume it to be the norm at this point.

The questions continue. What about Ithiel Horton? Pitt’s best three-point shooter made two or fewer deep shots in nine of his 18 games last season; can he produce more consistently this year? He needs to – Pitt needs him to – in order to present some kind of threat from outside.

There’s a best-case-scenario set of outcomes where Odukale and Sibande turn their late-season play into full-season production and Horton finds some consistency in his outside shooting; in that set of outcomes, Pitt probably has a relatively good season.

I realize that what constitutes a “good season” is pretty subjective, but that’s the recipe for the Panthers in 2021-22.

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