College basketball in Pittsburgh is fun again

Peter Boettger | Layout/Multimedia Editor | Jimmy Clark III (right) celebrates with Duquesne teammates after hitting a buzzer-beater against Ball State on Dec. 3.

Luke Henne | Editor-in-Chief

Jan. 5, 2023

Just one season ago, the college basketball landscape in Pittsburgh was abysmal. The city’s three Division I programs — Pittsburgh, Duquesne, Robert Morris —combined for a 25-69 record.

Pitt (11-21) lost five straight games to end the season, falling by an average margin of 20.2 points in those defeats.

Duquesne (6-24) lost 17 games in a row to close out the campaign, keeping it within single digits just five times in that stretch.

Robert Morris (8-24) went 2-7 in its final nine contests. That included a 10-point home loss to an IUPUI team that went 3-26, with its only win against a Division I team being over Robert Morris.

Simply put, things not only looked bad, but they looked like they were about to get a lot worse. In a transfer portal era where players come and go at the drop of a hat, the talent that had been on last season’s underachieving teams could go elsewhere.

However, while the transfer portal can take away, it can also give. The transfer portal has worked wonders for this city’s head coaches, and now they’re reaping the benefits. As a result, college basketball in Pittsburgh looks a whole lot better than it did last year.

Pitt, a program that has not made a postseason appearance since 2015-16, looked to be headed toward another underwhelming season under fifth-year Head Coach Jeff Capel.

After a season-opening win, Pitt lost back-to-back contests to power programs in West Virginia (by 25 points) and Michigan (by 31 points). The Panthers followed up the loss to Michigan by blowing a 4-point lead with 2:22 left in a loss to VCU the next day.

Since that three-game skid at the start of the season, the Panthers have gone 10-1. The only loss in that span was a 1-point loss on the road against Vanderbilt, a loss that came at the tail end of a three-game road trip in which they beat Northwestern by 29 points and North Carolina State to open Atlantic Coast Conference play.

Since losing to Vanderbilt nearly a month ago, the Panthers have not lost a game, and they’re currently 4-0 in ACC action. Their last two wins have come at home over ranked teams, as they took down No. 25 North Carolina on Friday before beating No. 11 Virginia on Tuesday.

Where has the team’s success come from?

The transfer portal.

All of Pitt’s top four scorers are transfers, three of whom were added to the roster prior to this season. Blake Hinson (17.0 points/game), Nelly Cummings (10.7 points/game) and Greg Elliott (10.4 points/game) have all made an immediate impact in their short time in Pittsburgh, while Jamarius Burton (15.7 points/game) has been crucial in his second season with the Panthers.

Even Nike Sibande (6.5 points/game), who transferred to Pitt prior to the 2020-21 season, was a spark off the bench with 16 points in the Panthers’ win over Virginia.

At 11-4 and tied for first in the conference, Pitt has not only tied its win total from last season, but it’s in position to push for an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time in seven years.

Duquesne, which fell from 21 wins in 2019-20 to just six wins in 2021-22, seemed to have more questions than answers entering this season under sixth-year Head Coach Keith Dambrot.

After the tumultuous end to last season, the Dukes returned just three key contributors — Tre Williams, Austin Rotroff and Kevin Easley Jr. — to this year’s squad, with Easley since having entered the portal after receiving limited playing time this season.

While it is still relatively early, Duquesne already finds itself at 12-4 this season, with two of those losses coming on the road against programs that are perennially successful in No. 4 Kentucky and Dayton. After a win over VCU on Wednesday, the Dukes have already doubled their win total (two) in Atlantic 10 Conference action from a season ago.

The Dukes’ body of work includes wins over Colgate (which has appeared in each of the last three NCAA Tournaments), UC Santa Barbara (currently 11-2), Ball State (currently 10-4), DePaul (a member of the Big East Conference) and Indiana State (currently 12-4).

How has Duquesne completely flipped the script from a season ago?

The transfer portal.

Four of the Dukes’ six top scorers were added via the portal prior to this season. Dae Dae Grant (16.8 points/game), Jimmy Clark III (12.6 points/game), Joe Reece (9.2 points/game) and Tevin Brewer (7.2 points/game) have been key forces in Duquesne’s transformation from cellar dweller to A-10 contender. Tre Williams (7.3 points/game, 5.0 rebounds/game) transferred to Duquesne prior to 2021-22 and has been a consistent force in the paint.

While the Dukes are 12-4 and 2-1 in A-10 play, the conference is a lot weaker this season and likely won’t receive any more than two bids (one automatic qualifier, one at-large) to the NCAA Tournament. However, a weaker conference provides Duquesne with an opportunity to continue stacking wins and making a push for a postseason berth of some sort.

Robert Morris qualified for the 2020 NCAA Tournament just two days before the event was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Colonials immediately left the Northeast Conference for the Horizon League following that 2019-20 season, and followed up a 4-15 showing in 2020-21 with the aforementioned 8-24 mark last season.

The Colonials looked to be on the same path this season, as they went 2-5 in their first seven games, with both wins coming over opponents that are not Division I.

However, when the calendar flipped from November to December, the team turned it on.

A three-game road trip to start the month saw the Colonials dismantle defending conference champion Wright State, go toe-to-toe with Horizon League stalwart Northern Kentucky and snag a Division I non-conference win from Central Michigan.

After taking Marshall (currently 12-3) to the wire, Robert Morris took down former NEC foes in Mount St. Mary’s and St. Francis (Pa.).

Although the Colonials lost their most-recent game to Cleveland State, they took down Purdue-Fort Wayne — the Horizon League’s preseason favorite — just prior. Robert Morris used a five-win December to get from 2-5 to 7-8, and the team now sits just one win away from matching last season’s total.

How has Head Coach Andrew Toole dug his program out of the hole?

The transfer portal.

While homegrown Enoch Cheeks (17.5 points/game) has led the charge, Kahliel Spear (13.9 points/game), Josh Corbin (12.1 points/game) and Michael Green III (6.9 points/game) have all transferred into Robert Morris over the past two seasons, and have been prime players in Robert Morris’ resurgence.

Although the Colonials are still under .500 entering the meat of conference play, they’ve proven that they’re capable of hanging with the best of the best in the Horizon League.

If the play that guided Robert Morris through December carries into January and February, another NCAA Tournament bid could be on the horizon come March.

There is still plenty of conference action that could dictate the course of any or all of these three teams’ seasons, for better or worse.

Regardless, with where things stand right now, it’s safe to say that college basketball is fun in Pittsburgh again.

These teams’ coaches are proven winners, and they’ve used the transfer portal to turn last season’s woes into this season’s successes.

Three teams that combined for 25 wins all of last season have already collected 30 wins in 2022-23. If that level of play keeps up through the next two months, postseason appearances won’t be out of the question for any of the three programs.