After Dominant Win over Syracuse, What Does Pitt’s Rotation Look Like?

Pitt's Xavier Johnson. Justin Champagnie in the background

The Pitt men’s basketball team scored 96 points in a dominant, 20-point victory over the Syracuse Orange this past weekend in Pittsburgh, Pa. That fact alone is newsworthy, as it has been undeniably rare for any Pitt team over the past decade to put up that many points against a conference opponent.

In fact, it’s been so rare, that Pitt had never before scored as many points in a regulation conference game as a member of the ACC. By my count, the most recent time the Panthers scored 96 against any conference opponent was a 101-96 double overtime win against Wake Forest in Jamie Dixon’s last season at Pitt.

To find a regulation conference game when Pitt put up that many points, you have to go all the way back to the powerhouse days of the Big East, and to Pitt’s final conference game of the 2007-08 season, when they beat DePaul by a score of 98-79.

Make no mistake, Pitt fans: what you saw on Saturday against Syracuse was a historically good offensive performance by this program. So good, in fact, that it can be hard to remember that just one day before the win over Syracuse, Panther nation was absorbing the news that freshman center John Hugley had been suspended indefinitely after having been charged with multiple felonies on Jan. 14, 2020.

Prior to his suspension, Hugley was one of Capel’s preferred options in the frontcourt, and had even led all Pitt big men in minutes (24) in Pitt’s loss against Louisville on Dec. 22–a game that will be his last as a Panther for at least an extended period of time. As a result, even on the heels of a dominant victory, Jeff Capel still faces key questions about how he will use his roster for the remainder of the season.

Fortunately for the Panthers, one of those questions was crossed off the list with the return against Syracuse of budding superstar Justin Champagnie from a knee injury. The sophomore forward made it very clear that he was ready to go at full speed, playing 34 minutes, scoring 24 points, and collecting 16 rebounds in the win.

After a four week hiatus, Pitt’s big three of Champagnie, Xavier Johnson, and Au’Diese Toney are once again starting alongside one another. Capel will very likely continue to fill out the rest of the starting lineup with guard Ithiel Horton and forward/center Abdoul Karim Coulibaly.

Horton has firmly staked his ground in the rotation, having earned no fewer than 35 minutes in each of Pitt’s last three games and scoring 40 points while shooting 37.5 percent from three-point range. His contributions were crucial in the win over Syracuse, as his 20 points and five three-pointers helped to open up the Pitt offense against the Syracuse zone.

Of course, the biggest questions for Pitt are at the center position. Coulibaly will likely continue to draw the starts there and play his fair share of minutes. In Hugley’s absence in both games against Syracuse, Coulibaly played 23 and 22 minutes respectively. Terrell Brown played 15 minutes in Pitt’s 63-60 road against Syracuse, but just eight minutes in the 96-76 home win this past weekend.

I would guess that we will see more of this dynamic as the season progresses. Brown will continue to earn minutes when he plays well, but the issue with him has always been consistency. If he can stay out of foul trouble and show consistent effort on both ends of the floor, he could see some games approaching 15 minutes; more often than not, I would bet that we will see him closer to the eight minutes that he got on Saturday. Coulibaly’s minutes should be fairly stable, as he fills his role nicely; he is not a major part of Pitt’s offense, but he does not need to be. What he brings to the Panthers is solid defense, consistency finishing around the rim when given the opportunity, and rebounding that is good enough.

Coulibaly is not an elite rebounder, but he does not need to be with Champagnie and Toney on the floor. Champagnie has proven to be an elite rebounder on both ends of the floor, while Toney’s ability to collect offensive boards has been outstanding this season. The fact that Champagnie and Toney are so good on the boards actually gives Pitt the flexibility to run some smaller, more versatile lineups, and they did not shy away from doing that against Syracuse this past weekend.

For instance, Femi Odukale logged 20 minutes in Saturday’s win over the Orange, and played around 15 of those minutes with Xavier Johnson on the floor. In one lineup combination that I think Pitt is likely to run again, Capel played Odukale, Johnson, Horton, Toney, and Champagnie.

This may actually be Pitt’s most exciting lineup as it allows them to keep all of their playmakers on the floor without sacrificing much on the boards. Further, Odukale’s eight assists and zero turnovers on Saturday showed the intelligence and skill with which he can run the point when he has Pitt’s scorers on the floor around him.

Odukale has recently emerged as Capel’s top option off of the bench, after logging at least 19 minutes in each of his past five contests, including 30 minutes against Louisville on Dec. 22. I suspect that he will continue to be the top bench option and after his performance against the Orange, I expect that he’ll be given more opportunities to run the offense while he is on the floor.

As long as this team continues to play well together, the lion’s share of minutes (I would guess around 170-175 of the 200 total player minutes per game) will go to six players–Johnson, Horton, Toney, Champagnie, Coulibaly, and Odukale. That leaves just 25-30 bench minutes for the rest of the team each game.

When everyone is healthy, players like Brown, William Jeffress, Noah Collier, Nike Sibande, and perhaps Gerald Drumgoole will still see a handful of minutes in any given game. And their contributions could increase if Pitt runs into any injuries or COVID-related absences the rest of the way.

Capel has also shown an ability to tailor his lineups based on matchups, and the minutes could shift here and there. But for now, Pitt finds itself in a good position; a talented rotation with several good bench options for when the team needs to shake things up.

The Panthers play against Duke tonight at 9 p.m. on ESPN coming off of the biggest ACC win of the Jeff Capel era. Follow @PittHoops and @IntoPitt on Twitter for live game coverage.