Pitt Panthers’ Hopes Against Michigan Hinge on John Hugley
PITTSBURGH — The Pitt Panthers are back in action, looking to bounce back from a loss to rival West Virginia by downing top-20 Michigan at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Head coach Jeff Capel had good news to share this week, saying that it “looks like” star center John Hugley is in line to make his season debut in this game after missing the first two contests of the year as he recovers from a knee injury.
Should he play, Hugley will get an unfriendly welcome to the 2022-23 season. This talented Wolverines squad is led by All-American-contending center Hunter Dickinson, a former five-star recruit and one of the best players in college basketball. He enters this game averaging 26.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game while shooting 78.5% from the floor and 90% from the line.
“In order to play against [Dickinson], you need bodies because he’s a gigantic body,” Capel said. “He’s very good. He’s skilled, he’s physical, he’s proven it … and he’s their best player so everything goes through him. So for us, without John, the whole frontcourt is inexperienced at the college level. They’ve had two games but they haven’t faced anything like this.”
Dickinson has everything you could want in a college big man – a 7’1 frame with weight behind it, elite rebounding skills, soft touch around the rim and efficiency despite a high usage rate. Hugley, who’s expected to make his season debut against Michigan, will have his hands full.
With Hugley in the lineup, expect Capel to push freshman center Guillermo Diaz-Graham further down the bench. This is a bad matchup for Diaz-Graham, a talented but raw and undersized player at this point in his career. Fede Federiko, an older and more athletic member of the frontcourt, is a better bet against Dickinson but only Hugley has both the size to defend him on one end and offensive skill to pressure him on the other.
Whoever comes out on top in this clash of starring centers will really come down to who can stay on the floor longer. Hugley will already be on a minutes restriction and can’t afford to waste any of his five fouls against anyone but Dickinson.
There’s an onus on Hugley to remain disciplined and defend without fouling but his teammates, who were blown by repeatedly in the loss to West Virginia, cannot afford to let Michigan’s guards – and they have some talented ones in freshmen Jett Howard and sophomore Kobe Bufkin – to beat them off the dribble and attack Hugley in the paint.
That same point can be flipped as well. Hugley brings gravity himself and can open up lanes for shooting, driving and interior passing. The Panthers’ own guards will have opportunities to put pressure on Dickinson driving downhill.
The Panthers went 5-13 last season in games where Hugley committed three or more fouls, compared to 6-8 when he committed two or fewer. Whether or not Pitt earns a win in the opening game of the Legends Classic will come down to their work on Dickinson and whether or not Hugley is able to make the most of his limited minutes in a difficult matchup.
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