The top 5! We made it! More efficiently than last season by a long shot. The final five are absolutely impacted by my own personal bias’s, but you’d have to bring a pretty good argument to the table against any of them. To kick it off at #5, Pittburgh basketball’s potential savior, the Lion in the Oakland Zoo, Xavier Johnson.
I remember Johnson as a prep player when Georgia Tech was after him for awhile before he committed to Nebraska. I, wrongly, projected him as a defensive stopper, a nice back court athlete. I was correct, but way off.
The skills displayed in that video exceeded my expectations for him as an upperclassman, let alone as a freshman. Johnson burst on to the scene from the starting gun, averaging 17.1 points, 4.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game in his first 18 games, scoring double digits in each game. He shot over 40% from deep and led the Panthers to a 12-6 record to start the season, including wins over Louisville and Florida State. Those 12 wins were already four more than the entire previous season
Now, the Panthers fell on hard times after that, but we all know that “The Wall” is a real thing for freshmen. In those first 18 games Johnson averaged nearly 30 minutes per game and went over 35 minutes a half a dozen times. Xavier regressed a bit, but still averaged 13.7 points, 4.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds over the final 13 games. He finished the season averaging a 15.5 points, 4.5 assist, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game, which made him the only freshman in the country to average 15-4.5-3.5-1 that wasn’t named Jalen Pickett. I know, there is a lot of numbers flying at you in that paragraph, go ahead and read it again.
After reportedly giving some thought to jumping early, Johnson is back and has some help in the front court with freshmen Karim Coulibaly and Justin Champagnie to go with rim protector Terrell Brown. We also typically see players make a significant jump from year 1 to year 2, and if that occurs for Johnson, he could be an absolute monster.
Jeff Capel is putting something together in Pittsburgh and Xavier is the keystone in that effort. I don’t think Pitt makes the tournament this season, but if Johnson continues to improve, the Panthers could finish in the top 10 of the ACC and be a top 25 team in 2020-21.