There have been few constants for the Pitt men’s basketball team so far this season.
The Panthers got off to a hot start at 4-1 in conference play, and it seemed as though third-year head coach Jeff Capel’s program rebuild had begun to truly materialize for the first time. But Pitt has since dropped six of seven contests, including a 28-point annihilation at the hands of Notre Dame on its home court. Combine this with the erratic nature of COVID-19 and its impact on college athletics, and you have yourself quite a chaotic campaign.
But through the regrettable losses, key wins and postponed games, sophomore guard Justin Champagnie has performed nothing short of sensationally. His abilities have given Pitt the feel of a team that can beat anyone when operating at full capacity, and he will undoubtedly remain in contention for the ACC Player of the Year.
Champagnie entered his second year with the Panthers coming off a season in which he averaged 12 points and seven rebounds per game, starting 27 of 33 games as a first-year. He served as an asset on both ends of the ball in year one, and emerged as a promising candidate to fill the void left by transfers Trey McGowens and Ryan Murphy.
He certainly did just that, and much more.
While fans tagged Champagnie with lofty expectations heading into the 2020-21 season, no one could have predicted this kind of production. Through 15 games, the sophomore leads the ACC with 18.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, the only player in the conference averaging a double-double. Furthermore, Champagnie became just the third NCAA D-I player in the last 25 years to have consecutive games with 20 points and 20 rebounds, joining current NBA players Blake Griffin and Caleb Swanigan. Statistically, no one matches up with Champagnie.
So what’s the issue?
Historically, the conference gives ACC Player of the Year to an outstanding player on an exceptional team primed for a deep tournament run in March — where Champagnie has a problem. While the Panthers have improved yearly in the Jeff Capel era, they currently sit in 11th place in the ACC and have an uphill battle to make the NCAA Tournament.
Five of the last six ACC Player of the Year winners have led their respective teams to at least the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, one of which came away with a national title — Jahlil Okafor of Duke in 2014-15. The only exception came with Tre Jones of Duke last season, in which the annual tournament did not take place due to COVID-19.
Yet some precedent does exist for a player like Champagnie winning the award. Current Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Warren took home the honors six years ago after averaging nearly 25 points per game on an unranked NC State team. Granted, Warren’s scoring numbers comfortably eclipse those of Champagnie, but the Pitt forward makes up for it with his impact on the defensive side of the ball and on the boards.
Additionally, the conference simply doesn’t have a player who fits the great-player-and-team criteria this year. Sure there’s Sam Hauser of No. 9 Virginia, Carlik Jones of unranked Louisville and Matthew Hurt of unranked Duke, but none have the numbers of Champagnie.
Hurt moderately compares to Champagnie for the annual award from a statistical standpoint— averaging 18.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, but Duke has reeled as of late and now sits with Pitt in the bottom half of the ACC standings. If Champagnie doesn’t walk away with the award, Hurt will likely be ruled out as well.
Hurt and the Blue Devils traveled to Pittsburgh to take on Champagnie’s Panthers earlier this season in a game many billed as a showdown between the two best players in the ACC. The pair matched up with each other for the majority of the contest — a duel in which Champagnie asserted his dominance. The Pitt forward shot 12-15 from the field, racking up an eye-popping 31 points to go along with 14 rebounds and five blocks. Hurt went 5-12 with 13 points and six rebounds. Pitt knocked off Duke 79-73.
Jones will likely receive consideration when it comes to players not named Justin Champagnie. Louisville (11-4, 6-3 ACC) currently holds the No. 4 spot in the ACC, and Jones has become a superb presence at the point for the Cardinals. Jones averages 17.4 points and 4.9 assists per game — both good for third in the conference. While he has objectively impressive stats, Jones still looks up at Champagnie from a numbers standpoint.
Essentially, Champagnie’s case boils down to a couple of things. First, will the voters absorb the optics of giving its most prestigious individual award to a player on a team that hasn’t exactly dominated? The numbers are there.
The other, and the more problematic of the two for Champagnie, is recency bias. Champagnie hasn’t had the same nightly dominance he enjoyed over the first two months of the season since the beginning of February. While he has still been a double-double machine, the Pitt offense seems to have turned away from the Champagnie-centric system and focused on running through the guards.
After his early-season fireworks, opposing defenses have shown they will allocate all available resources to contain Champagnie. Capel has acknowledged the fact that other teams have done this, and attributes Champagne’s slide to this new reality.
Furthermore, just because Champagnie hasn’t continued to put up the eye-popping stats he did at one point in the season, he still adds value to the team. He remains, and will continue to remain, the focal point of opposing defenses, and since other teams have thrown the kitchen sink at defending the Pitt forward, they have given other players more room to get open and take high-quality shots.
Whether the supporting cast has taken advantage of the spike in opportunities is another discussion. But make no mistake, Champagnie’s influence on games is alive and well — regardless of what the box score says.
After Pitt’s victory over Duke, Champagnie revealed that he wanted to insert himself into the ACC Player of the Year conversation — specifically when it came to the comparisons between himself and Hurt.
“I didn’t think that [Hurt] was better than me, so I went out there and proved it,” Champagnie said.
We’ll see if the voters agree.
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