For Jeff Capel and Pitt, Some Mystery Remains in Much Improved Frontcourt

Jeff Capel at the ACC Press Conference

   Abdoul Karim Coulibaly played 29 minutes in Pitt’s 83-74 win over Drexel on Nov. 28 at the Petersen Events Center. With John Hugley playing just 10 minutes against Drexel, and with Terrell Brown failing to appear in the game at all, has a leader emerged in Pitt’s battle for frontcourt minutes this season?

   In short, the answer is yes. But in the bigger picture, there are still plenty of questions about how the frontcourt will shake out. Consider that in the 2019-20 season, Pitt played 33 games, and a Panthers center played 29 or more minutes in just five of those games. So who were those centers?

   Coulibaly, who played a whopping 35 minutes off the bench in a 79-67 loss at Duke on Jan. 28, 2020; Terrell Brown, who also hit the 35 minute mark in Pitt’s 71-57 road win over Robert Morris on Nov. 12, 2019; Brown again with 31 minutes in a 72-49 loss against Syracuse on Feb. 26, 2020; Eric Hamilton, who played 30 minutes in Pitt’s 63-59 win over Kansas State in the Fort Myers Tip-off Tournament; and Hamilton again with 29 minutes in a 71-60 home win against Rutgers on Dec. 3, 2019.

   As you can see, each of Pitt’s three big men from last season played big minutes at least once, and the  spread was fairly even–Brown and Hamilton each hit 29 minutes twice, and Coulibaly did once.

   Interestingly, each of those big men faced games where they hardly saw the floor. Hamilton played fewer than 10 minutes in six games; Brown played fewer than 10 minutes in three games; and Coulibaly played fewer than 10 minutes in 16 games.

   Fascinatingly, each Pitt center from a year ago had stretches of play where they were heavily involved in the game plan, and stretches where they barely saw the floor at all. More than any other position group, Jeff Capel has shown a willingness to play the hot hand at center and try to maximize his matchups rather than roll with one designated starter at the position.

   Through two games in the 2020-21 season, Capel has shown more of the same in that regard. Hugley led the frontcourt in minutes against Saint Francis (Pa.) with 20, while Brown and Coulibaly each played 10 minutes. Against Drexel, Coulibaly played 29 minutes, while Hugley played 10, and Brown did not play at all.

   For this reason, it is really hard to predict how the frontcourt minutes will look at the end of the year. However, I do expect Coulibaly to draw the lion’s share of minutes as long as he continues to play well. Despite an unspectacular offensive performance against Drexel with just four points and zero offensive rebounds, Coulibaly came up clutch time and time again on the defensive end, posting three rebounds, three blocks, and two steals.

   And despite only putting up just four points, Coulibaly was efficient, making both of his field goal attempts without turning the ball over, which is another huge plus for the sophomore big man from Mali. In the season opening loss against Saint Francis (Pa.), Pitt big men shot just 7-for-17 from the floor, and it is easy to imagine how sloppy offense from around the basket may have cost them the game.

   Especially considering that Capel’s primary offensive options will continue to be Xavier Johnson, Au’Diese Toney, and Justin Champagnie, Pitt can survive most games without seeing big scoring numbers from the center. Efficiency will be the key, and as long as Coulibaly continues to make his shots at high percentages, he should continue to see big minutes for Pitt this season.

   I expect that Hugley will be second on the depth chart for the center position, as Capel clearly likes the upside that they see in the true freshman. This likely leaves Brown as the odd man out in the early going. Still, Brown adds a lot of experience and defensive skill to the table, and it would not surprise me to see him play in some favorable matchups for his skillset. At the very least, he should have moments to prove his worth on the