Pitt

Pitt freshman Champagnie uncorks growth ☕

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Justin Champagnie dominated the stat sheet for the Pitt Panthers against Arkansas-Pine Bluff — but what Xavier Johnson did might matter mor

Justin Champagnie trots down the court inside the Pete. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

We’re going to talk about freshman Justin Champagnie, the star for Pitt during the Panthers’ 66-41 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff (it’s a real school; I Googled it) Thursday evening at the Petersen Events Center.

But first, we’re going to talk about this:

Unfortunately, the camera cuts away, but here’s what happened: Ryan Murphy broke out of an 0-for-12 slump from deep — a run spanning the team’s last three games — with that triple up there. It rattled around, it dropped, then Murphy celebrated. He looked to the crowd and roared, fired up and ready to get his shooting touch back.

There was just one problem: Live ball. The Panthers were pressing after made baskets, and Murphy was out of position. Xavier Johnson noticed immediately, and he grabbed Murphy mid-celebration, instructing him to get into place for the press. Johnson, a standout freshman with these Panthers one year ago, was expected to help lead the program to new heights in 2019-20 and beyond. They needed him to not just perform on the court but to provide those boosts, those intangibles, along the way.

Well, how about all that with Murphy? I had to ask Johnson about it after the game:

Johnson downplayed the moment a bit, saying he wanted to be happy for Murphy, but the win matters more. You gotta get back in it and continue to play the game.

Jeff Capel was probed about that interaction after Johnson and Champagnie left the podium, however, and he offered something even better:

“I don’t want him [Johnson] to do that now,” Capel was saying. “I just want him to be a really good player. My thing is that maybe that was too much of a burden on him at this point and that could cause some pressure. We just want him to play.

“I’ll lead. I’ll lead our team.”

We gotta deconstruct this one, because oh man is it good.

Capel obviously doesn’t refer to the Johnson-Murphy interaction specifically with that first part. He wants Johnson to help his teammates and to help the team win at all times. What he doesn’t want is for Johnson to feel he has to assume this larger-than-life persona on the court. Johnson is a sophomore, and despite an all-time great freshman year with these Panthers, he’s still learning and growing and developing himself. Those talks of the NBA and of superstardom might come in time, but Capel knows as well as anyone they were premature when they surfaced before this season.

So he wants to help Johnson be the best version of himself now. To shake off all that hype, all that pressure and all that negativity weighing Johnson down. After a brutal four games to open the season, that transformation just might be happening. Johnson posted his best game of the season in Pitt’s last outing, a 63-50 win over Monmouth, and he just backed that up with another efficient and effective display Thursday night against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (still a real place; Googled it again).

Johnson went for 13 points with six assists, three rebounds, four steals and zero turnovers on three triples and two dunks, marking his second straight game commanding Pitt’s offense with his expected expert touch.

“I was comfortable, like I was playing open gym,” Johnson was saying of his performance after the game. “I was just making the easy plays, and that’s what the coaching staff wants.”

Capel took note, too:

“I think [Johnson has] played a lot better and more like he’s capable of playing,” he said. “I don’t know about the pressure or anything like that. It’s not something that we’ve discussed since after the West Virginia game … I just think he’s playing better. I think he’s in a better space mentally. It could be that he’s not putting pressure. I just think he’s going out and playing.”

Part of that, per Johnson himself, materialized because he cut off social media. He could get caught up in that negativity and that added pressure, so he took the necessary steps to remove himself from it, he told reporters after the Monmouth win.

Naturally, I had to follow up on this. A young, rising star giving Instagram and Twitter the axe? That’s gotta be tough, right? Ehh … maybe not:

So Johnson put down the phone and picked up the controller — a fair trade, in my opinion. And in the end, the culmination of Johnson’s decisions looked like this Thursday:

Threes. Dishes. Dunks. Steals.

Johnson did it all. The next challenge for him? Do it again. And make it better this time.

Those talks of the NBA won’t come to fruition any other way. Brick by brick, some might say.

• I promised to talk about Champagnie, so here we are. All the freshman from Brooklyn did was put up a team-high 18 points on 67 percent shooting (8 for 12) along with six rebounds, three steals and just one turnover. But it was more than that.

Arkansas-Pine Bluff played a 2-3 zone throughout this contest, and Champagnie shredded it. He looked comfortable and at home working against the zone defense, something that was no accident:

“Growing up I was always playing the big man, so being in the middle of the zone was just a part of the way I play, so that’s why it’s so comfortable for me,” Champagnie was saying after the game.

Champagnie’s working back from a knee injury that was initially thought to be a potential season-ending ACL tear. Eventually, it was determined to be just a knee sprain, however, and Champagnie was ready in time for Pitt’s season opener against Florida State. Since then, he’s steadily become more comfortable, cracking the starting lineup in each of the last two games.

“I still gotta be cautious with what I do, but I feel comfortable in the way I play and I feel comfortable in my knee, so I just go out there and just have fun and play,” Champagnie said. “The first practice back, I was cautious, like, I didn’t want to go rebound, I didn’t want to jump a lot. But as time went on, I just worked on it, and it just came back to me.”

After his 18-point effort Thursday — this following his first career double-double against Monmouth, mind you — Champagnie appears to be regaining his full form. But his ceiling remains in the distance.

“We think he’s a talented kid, but we want more from him, and we’re going to be hard on him because we think he can do more,” Capel was saying of Champagnie after this one. “And at times it looks like he’s not going as hard, and part of that is because he’s a gifted athlete. But, again, there are some habits that we have to continue to work with him on. He’s played well the last two games since he started — he’s really played well all year — but there’s a few more levels that we think he can get to, and we’re going to be on him to get there.”

• Here’s the post-game interaction of the night, fittingly between Champagnie and Johnson:

• Trey McGowens, the other half of the superstar sophomores alongside Johnson, disappeared in this game. He had … wait, can this be right? Zero points? Yep, zero points on 0 for 3 shooting, all from three. Two assists, two fouls, two turnovers and a steal. That’s it for McGowens.

We’ve seen McGowens flash this season, and we’ve seen him falter. Interestingly, he always seems to play better when Johnson is struggling and vice versa. Pitt hasn’t had both players firing at the same time yet in 2019-20.  I asked Capel about how he can help facilitate that duo moving forward — not just one guy or the other showing up on game day:

Nothing mind-blowing there. It comes back to consistency. That — as is the case with any young, building team — remains the struggle for Pitt this season.

Eric Hamilton wasn’t consistent with his season-to-date tonight, either … in a good way for the Panthers. He had 12 points, eight rebounds (three offensive) and a steal in just 17 minutes of playing time, representing by far his best showing of the season.

“We always push Eric,” Johnson was saying of Hamilton after the game. “During the summer, when he first came in, he dominated the boards. He was killing it, making jump shots. He was just being himself … Now that we’ve tried to push him and push him, he’s starting to come out of his shell.”

Yeah, like this:

Pitt could use a whole lot more of that moving forward, especially with Terrell Brown (five points, one rebound, one personal foul in this one) continuing his up-and-down, inconsistent ways down low.

“I thought the very first thing was rebounding,” Capel said of Hamilton. “He and I met the other day and I just told him, ‘Look, we’ve played five games. You have one defensive rebound. That’s not acceptable. That’s something that we need from all of our post guys. And so I just thought, you know … he has an energy that he plays with. And I thought he really did a good job there. I thought he concentrated on trying to rebound, trying to talk, trying to defend, doing those things. And then he was able to finish some things around the basket off some really good passes by his teammates. And then he was able to get to the offensive glass.”

• Murphy’s three illustrated at the tippy-top of this article broke a cold streak, but his teammates never lost faith in him along the way.

“I told him that he was just, like, hesitating to shoot,” Johnson said. “Like, bro, shoot the ball. We all trust you to shoot. Just shoot.”

Murphy finished with six points (2 for 10 from three) in this one along with four assists, two rebounds and two steals. Late in the game, however, he did pass up a clean look from deep, electing to penetrate and kick instead. That’s what Johnson’s talking about. Shooters shoot, and Murphy just might’ve been in his own head a bit, given his recent struggles. This will be an interesting storyline to track moving forward.

Abdoul Karim Coulibaly saw 14 minutes in this one, notching four points on 2-for-6 shooting to go with four rebounds and two assists. But watching him … Man, it just seemed much better than that line indicates. He moves fluidly and presents a sophisticated array of post moves for a freshman. He just can’t finish yet, something that’s constantly being worked on in practice with Capel and company.

Coulibaly’s game was particularly suited for this game, though, as the zone defense played right into his strengths:

“I noticed it with Karim watching the gold-medal game, Mali vs. USA, and USA went to a zone and I thought he did a heck of a job attacking it in the middle,” Capel was saying of Coulibaly. “And I made a note of it right then to myself that if we play against zone, he’s a guy that we’d want in the middle. Karim has a very good feel for how to play basketball. It’s just getting the language barrier and getting him to understand all these things. Once he figures that out, then I think he’ll continue to get better and better. But he’s got a great attitude, he works really hard and he wants to be good. And he’s a very good teammate, so we have to continue to push him.”

• Pitt held Arkansas-Pine Bluff to just 18 points in the first half, their best first-half defensive performance of the year. To be fair, that was heavily aided by the away team’s 23-percent-shooting effort in the opening frame, a showing that at one point stood at 1 for 17 from the field (six percent). You uhh … gotta put the ball in the hoop to earn points, and the Golden Lions just weren’t getting it done.

• The 41 points overall allowed by Pitt are the fewest in the Capel era and the fewest since a 58-39 win over Holy Cross in December of 2014.

• Pitt’s six turnovers marked a season low. They also posted season highs in assists (17), steals (15), turnovers forced (22) and points off turnovers (22).

• That last bullet? Yeah, keep in mind they played Arkansas-Pine Bluff (which, much to my surprise, remains a real place; I Googled it a final time). I’m not going to discredit what Pitt did — they earned it with some nice, fundamental basketball — but the opponent matters. The trick now is carrying this momentum and these lessons learned onto tougher tasks.

• The other hot newcomer besides Champagnie, Gerald Drumgoole, Jr., missed this game, his second in a row, after rolling his ankle in practice. No update was provided.

THE ESSENTIALS

Boxscore
Video highlights
ACC scoreboard
ACC standings

THE STARTING LINEUPS

For Capel’s Panthers:

Xavier Johnson, guard
Trey McGowens,
guard
Ryan Murphy,
guard
Justin Champagnie,
forward
Terrell Brown,
center

And for George Ivory‘s Golden Lions:

Dequan Morris, guard
Jamil Wilson, guard
Chris Smith, forward
Markedric Bell, forward
Marquell Carter, forward

THE SCHEDULE

Pitt’s back at it Monday, Nov. 25, way down in Fort Myers, Fla., for the semifinals of the Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off, where they’ll face Kansas State. They’ll play again Wednesday, Nov. 27, either for the championship or for third place. Alex Stumpf is packing his sunblock as we speak and will be there for all the coverage.

THE COVERAGE

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