Five Takeaways from Jeff Capel’s Monday Press Conference

Jeff Capel, Head Coach of the University of Pittsburgh Men's Basketball Team

With the Pitt men’s basketball team set to kick off its season in just eight days, head coach Jeff Capel answered some questions from the media during a press conference on Monday afternoon.

The questions covered a wide range of topics, and provided insight into the current state of the men’s basketball program. Here are five key takeaways from Capel’s press conference:

The Panthers will start the 2019-20 season in good health.

One of the most noteworthy revelations of Capel’s press conference was that freshman wing Justin Champagnie is healthy and will play in the season opener against the Florida State Seminoles next Wednesday, Nov. 6 at the Petersen Events Center.

This comes as somewhat of a surprise, given reports earlier this fall that Champagnie hurt his knee in what may have been a season-ending injury. Capel shared that the injury initially occurred on Sept. 10, the day of the Coaches vs. Cancer event at Heinz Field, and he initially feared that Champagnie tore his ACL. In a huge break for the Panthers, a re-evaluation revealed a less-severe knee sprain once the swelling improved.

Having taken three weeks off while awaiting word on the severity of his injury, Champagnie is currently working on getting back into playing shape. Capel said that Champagnie is back to practicing at full speed, and will participate in the Panthers’ scrimmage against Slippery Rock University on Wednesday, Oct. 30.

With Champagnie back in the fold, senior center Kene Chukwuka is Pitt’s only remaining long-term injury, dating back to hip surgery that he had following Pitt’s exit from the ACC Tournament in March. Capel addressed Chukwuka’s injury in the context of  “if” rather than “when” he will return, so it is reasonable to expect that he will be out for much of the upcoming season, and perhaps the entire 2019-20 campaign.

Pitt will have more flexible lineup options this season than they did in 2018-19.

Last season, eight Panthers played at least 500 minutes throughout the season. Five of them were guards. Of the eight players in the regular rotation, guards Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, Jared Wilson-Frame, and small forward Au’Diese Toney received the greatest share of minutes by a wide margin, with each player seeing at least 800 minutes.

Meanwhile, junior center Terrell Brown and Chukwuka, the team’s only true bigs, received fewer than 600 minutes apiece. Having just one wing and no true bigs near the top of the rotation illustrates Pitt’s lack of frontcourt depth last season, which put them at a disadvantage against many of the bigger, more physical teams in the ACC.

Chukwuka’s absence thins out Pitt’s returning frontcourt depth, leaving Brown as the only returning center from last year’s team. However, Pitt added some skilled big men to the equation this offseason in freshman Karim Coulibaly, who led Mali to the FIBA U19 World Cup Championship game this summer, and graduate transfer Eric Hamilton. Those players alone will allow Capel to run more unique lineup combinations than they did last season, without even mentioning the additions of wings Champagnie and Gerald Drumgoole.

According to Capel, Drumgoole led the Panthers in rebounding in the secret scrimmage vs. Maryland, while Champagnie provides a versatility to the team offensively, defensively, and on the boards, that Pitt did not have last year. Combined with the true bigs on the roster, these two freshmen wings give Capel more flexibility in how to utilize his rotation for the upcoming season.

While it is a relatively safe bet that Johnson and McGowens to lead the team in minutes yet again, Capel suggested that unlike last season, the team may have flexibility this season to play bigger lineups for extended periods. This could prove key against opponents like Florida State, which have elite length and rebounding skill.

Pitt can also choose to play smaller lineups at times as they often did last year, with the addition of sharpshooter