Coming off one of the worst seasons in program history, there’s a surprising sense of optimism permeating through the Pitt men’s basketball team ahead of the 2018-19 season.
So why the brighter outlook for a team that’s lost its last 22 games in ACC play? For junior guard/forward Malik Ellison, it all starts with the Panthers’ new man in charge, Jeff Capel.
“Coach Capel is the main thing,” Ellison said. “When he first got here, I could really feel his presence. He’s a hard-working guy, and he’s also very genuine and down to earth. He’s easy to get along with and easy to talk to, and I gained my trust in him and he trusts me as well.”
Pitt’s returning players from the mostly-miserable Kevin Stallings era sensed a noticeable change in the building as soon as Capel took over. From the way he runs his practices to the way he’s able to connect with his players, the atmosphere surrounding the program is that of a team with nowhere to go but up.
“Every day he preaches winning. Finding a way to win. And then through that, we kind of all embrace that we need to find ways to win,” sophomore guard Khameron Davis said. “So today, I’m mad today, because I didn’t win everything I was in. And that’s only because Capel has been instilling that into us, so the culture is already changing.”
Having Ellison out on the court is sure to provide a boost for Pitt’s offensive woes from a season ago, as he can provide another versatile, athletic scorer on the wing the Panthers so desperately needed last year. He contributed right away as a true freshman at St. John’s, averaging 7.4 points per game over two seasons before transferring to Pitt following the 2016-17 season.
Ellison said watching the Panthers struggle through battles with injuries, inexperience and inconsistency last year while sitting out due to transfer rules was one of the hardest things he’s had to go through as a player.
“It was very difficult, especially knowing you can help a lot,” Ellison said. “Just being there every day in practice, just seeing how the energy was low every day because we were losing … it was a very tough year for me individually and just for the whole organization.”
As team captain, Ellison is embracing the responsibility of setting the example for his younger teammates to follow.
“I’m going to have to be the alpha dog and the leader on the team, so I’ve got to go out there and everybody else is going to follow after me, so I’ve got to make sure that each and every possession I’m out there playing hard and just staying aggressive,” Ellison said.
But he won’t be able to do it all alone.
Restoring the Panthers back to national prominence is a process that Capel and his players know will not happen overnight, and probably not for at least a few years. But it still gives them a goal to shoot for knowing they’re just a few years removed from the days of Big East Championships and national title contention — even if Davis wasn’t aware of the program’s proud history until he got here.
“I had no idea about this program, I’m not going to lie,” Davis said. “I really liked the family feel and I really liked how tough the city was, that’s why I came here. I didn’t know the history and the banners we hung up there.”
While some impatient fans were happy to see Jamie Dixon go after making just one trip past the Sweet 16 in his 14 years as Pitt’s head coach, the reality quickly set in after his departure: sometimes you don’t know how good you have it until it’s gone. Dixon won’t be coming back any time soon, so now it’s up to Capel to try to win back the fan base that has largely abandoned the Panthers after last year’s season to forget.
For his part, Capel won’t be looking back on last season as a teaching tool. Instead, his focus is on what he can do to make sure a season like that never happens again.
“Just to try to get better every day, to try to improve every day, to try to understand the importance of each day, understand how to work to get to a point where we’ve earned the right to be good,” Capel said. “And that’s a process. It’s not something that’s just given. You have to earn it, you have to fight for it every day. That’s the mindset that we have to have.”