The Pitt Basketball Season That Could Have Been

(Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)

Remember to follow us on Twitter and Like us on Facebook for continued Pittsburgh Sports coverage: 

Pitt men's basketball suffered a tough 75-72 loss against Louisville last night.  Some shoddy officiating kept Pitt's best player, John Hugley, off the court for almost the entire first half.  If not for that, Pitt could've easily won this game as 13 point underdogs on the road against a superior conference opponent.  

While there is a lot to unpack from this game, the biggest storyline of the night was the return of guard Ithiel Horton.  His play and the way it transformed this team had me thinking of the promise this roster could have shown this season.

At the start of the season, we knew it was going to be a rebuilding year.  There is a lot of youth on this Pitt roster and, with the addition of some transfer players, it was going to take a little while for this team to play cohesively.  That also took a big hit when guard Nike Sibande tore his ACL in an exhibition game against Gannon, followed by the suspension of Horton.  Two starting guards that were expected to handle the ball and spread the floor were now missing and it showed when the season started.  

The offense looked stale and there was hardly any outside shooting.  It was Hugley or bust on the offensive end for this team, an unsustainable playstyle in such a tough conference.  However, Horton's return last night showed flashes of what this team could have been from the start.

While he did not start, Horton checked in midway through the first half and was quickly involved.  With Hugley on the bench due to a personal foul and subsequent technical foul only 1:12 seconds into the game, the team needed an offensive spark.  That's when Horton seized the opportunity.  

It was when the deficit reached eight points, and at the point of getting out of hand, that Horton really turned it on. Scoring all 13 of his points in the first half, Horton kept his team in the game with his sharpshooting abilities.  It was a good sign that with Pitt's top scorer off the floor, there was a familiar face that was able to pick up the scoring slack.  

While Horton's scoring is undoubtedly crucial to Pitt and its success, it's his skillset that is just as important for this team.  His keen ability to score from behind the three-point line creates a lot of possibilities for this offense.  He was 3 of 5 from beyond the arc last night, and was a huge part of why Pitt kept it close in the first half and beyond.  With his shooting ability returning to the offense, it forces defenses to be wary of him from behind the arc. As a result, it opens up space on the floor elsewhere, mainly in the paint, where the rest of the Pitt players would prefer to score.  It adds a dynamic option to an offense that desperately needs it.

All of this is to say who knows what this team's record would be if both Horton and Sibande had played all season long?  Pitt's current play is night and day from where it was at the beginning of the season.  The defense is much more stout and the offense had seen improvements even before Horton's return.

Also, having both of these guards available even in blowout losses would still help.  Six of Pitt's last eight games have been decided by one possession.  Pitt is 0-3 in conference play with only five points separating them from 3-0.  While that's a testament to their improved play and competitiveness against tough opponents, it has me daydreaming about what could have been.  

The offensive impact of Horton and Sibande would be enormous for this Pitt team and could have easily swung some, if not all, of those one possession games in their favor.  As a Pitt fan who loves watching their basketball team every winter, I guess I can only be left to my imaginations of what they could have achieved this season with their full complement of players.