Freshman Justin Champagnie reaches another level in Pitt win
The early days of Justin Champagnie’s collegiate career have unveiled a talented freshman who can score, rebound and keep a level head while attacking a zone defense.
Or, as Pitt coach Jeff Capel described it: “Not panic in the middle of chaos.”
Champagnie showed maturity beyond his 18 years Thursday night at Petersen Events Center, helping lead Pitt (4-2) to its second consecutive victory, 66-41, against Arkansas Pine Bluff (0-5).
Champagnie reached double-digit scoring for the fourth consecutive game, recording a season-high 18 points, with six rebounds and three steals. He played in the middle against Arkansas Pine Bluff’s zone defense — similar to what Pitt will see from Syracuse, only with less-talented athletes.
Champagnie is averaging 13 points, which is impressive for a freshman in November, but Capel played and coached at Duke. It will take a lot to satisfy him, especially this early, especially with Pitt trying to improve on its modest total of three victories last season in the ACC.
“We think he’s a talented kid, but we want more from him and we’re going to be hard on him,” Capel said. “At times, it looks like he’s not going as hard. Part of that is because he’s a gifted athlete, but there are some habits we have to continue to work with him on.
“He’s really played well all year, but there are few more levels we think we can get to, and we’re going to be on him to get there.”
Graduate transfer forward Eric Hamilton (6-foot-9, 230 pounds) didn’t start, but he led the team with eight rebounds, five on the defensive end, in nearly 17 minutes. His sit-down with Capel a few days ago worked after the coach told him his total of one defensive rebound in the previous five games was “not acceptable.”
Freshman Karim Coulibaly (6-8) also spent time in the post, scoring four points with four rebounds and two assists in more than 14 minutes.
Capel said he got the idea of using Coulibaly in the middle while watching him play for his native Mali against the U.S. in the FIBA Under 19 World Cup in Greece.
“U.S.A. went to a zone, and I thought he did a heckuva job of attacking it in the middle,” Capel said. “I made a note right then to myself, ‘If we play against a zone, he’s a guy we 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, he’ll continue to get better and better. We have to continue to push him.”
That appears to be Capel’s coaching method for his young team in the early days of the season: push his players beyond their years.
It seems to have worked with sophomore point guard Xavier Johnson, who played more than 31 minutes and didn’t commit a turnover. That stat was even more impressive than his 13 points, six assists and four steals.
Overall, Pitt committed only six turnovers.
“We shouldn’t have had that many turnovers against the zone, to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “I was just making the easy plays. That’s what the coaching staff wants.”
Johnson is playing better since his self-imposed ban on social media.
“He’s in a better space mentally,” Capel said. “It could be that he’s not putting pressure on himself. I think he’s just going out and playing.”
Earlier in the season, Johnson might have been assuming a bigger leadership role than was necessary.
“I don’t want him to do that now,” Capel said. “I just want him to be a really good player. My thing is maybe that was too much of a burden on him at this point, and that caused some pressure.
“We just want him to play. I’ll lead our team.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .