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Vukovcan: Could Jeff Capel’s Team Be Better Than We Think?



The minute Jeff Capel was hired to become Pitt’s new men’s basketball coach, he brought with him plenty of excitement and hope for the future.

Considering Pitt went winless in the ACC last year, it wouldn’t take very much to “improve.”

While Capel would be adding names like Xavier Johnson, Au’Diese Toney, Trey McGowens, Malik Ellison and Sidy N’Dir, they would still be competing in the toughest basketball conference in the country.

So realistically, how much could be expected this year?

Considering the deficiencies that remained on the roster, even the most optimistic observer could make a case for Pitt to possibly win four, maybe five conference games.

Let me be clear, that’s very optimistic.

Although the competition hasn’t been strong, Pitt has started the season 4-0 and doesn’t even resemble the team that we saw on the court last year.

Does this team have more talent than we thought and could they be better than everyone predicted?

The quick answers are yes and it’s still too early to really tell.

Let’s keep in mind that the four wins came against Youngstown State, VMI, Troy and Central Arkansas who have a combined record of 7-8.

Following Saturday’s game vs. North Alabama, we’ll start to get a better idea of just how improved the 2018-19 Pitt Panthers really are as they have upcoming games against St. Louis, Iowa, Duquesne and West Virginia.

If Pitt is able to somehow find a way to split those four games, they have a chance to finish non-conference play with a record of 11-2 or 10-3 before entering ACC conference play.

Although on the January schedule it looks nearly impossible to find a win aside from maybe North Carolina State, the young talent that we’ve seen this year is going to allow Pitt to be more competitive and stay in a lot more games.

I’m not sure what sort of production Capel thought he’d be getting from Johnson, McGowens and Toney but that trio has been a heck of a lot better than what I expected.

Through four games:

  • Xavier Johnson: 14.3 PPG, 47.5 FG%, 5 Reb/Game, 7 Assists/Game, 27 minutes per game.
  • Trey McGowens: 11 PPG, 45.5 FG%, 3 Assists/Game, 25 minutes per game.
  • Au’Diese Toney: 10.8 PPG, 50.0 FG%, 6.3 Reb/Game, 26.8 minutes per game.

Although those numbers are impressive, I’m not sure it tells how good those three players have really been, especially Johnson and McGowens.

Last year, Pitt players struggled creating their own shot and getting into the lane and to the rim.

This year, that’s not been the case as it seems like any of the guards and wing players can get to the hole whenever they want. The quickness and athletic ability that Johnson and McGowens possess is breathtaking and you’d have to think for a long time to come up with past Panther players that possess their skillset.

Xavier Johnson (1) November 6, 2018 — David Hague/PSN

While he doesn’t have their quickness, Malik Ellison has been a welcome addition to the roster.

After sitting out last season, Capel named Ellison as the team captain and not only has he led but he’s produced as well. Through four games, Ellison is averaging 10 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists per game. While he’s a bit more physical than the freshman, Ellison still has the ability to create his own offense by driving to the lane and drawing fouls.

While Pitt is still lacking size, this group’s ability to draw fouls due to their athleticism could become a factor in games against more talented teams.

Speaking of talented, Pitt’s most talented and probably the biggest surprise of the young season has been Jared Wilson-Frame, who doesn’t even resemble the same player as a year ago.

Wilson-Frame has just been lights out shooting and he leads the team in scoring with 21.3 points per game.

He’s in the type of zone that whenever he shoots it, you feel like he’s going to make it.

You get that feeling because for the season he’s shooting 60.5% from the field and 55.6 from beyond the 3-point arc.

When you have someone shooting like Wilson-Frame and players like Johnson, McGowen and Ellison driving freely to the lane, that’s a deadly combination.

While those players have been terrific, Capel will need one player to keep producing if Pitt has any chance at being a surprise in the ACC.

In my opinion, the X-Factor for the Panthers is Terrell Brown.

In order to not get completely dominated by the talented big men in conference, Pitt needs Brown to hold his own and chip-in with points and rebounds.

There’s no question Brown has the talent, the only questions are his consistency and desire.

That will be one of Capel’s biggest challenges: finding a way to get into Brown’s head and getting an effort out of him night in and night out.

By no means am I suggesting Pitt can win 20 games or even have a winning conference record. I’m just saying that the new blood along with some of the holdovers from last year will make this a much more enjoyable season for Pitt basketball fans.

How enjoyable?

Time will tell but so far, so good.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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