Saturday at Petersen Events Center, the Pitt men’s basketball team will get to experience a packed house for the first time.
The Panthers’ game against North Carolina, scheduled for a noon tip, has been sold out, the first time Pitt sold out a home game since February 2016, a span of 23 months.
That’s longer than any Pitt player or coach has been with the program, save for director of basketball operations Brian Regan and director of student-athlete development Jason Richards.
It’s something that the players, in particular, have been waiting for, after averaging 4,749 fans through nine non-conference games.
“I’m very excited for my first time playing in a sold-out game,” freshman point guard Xavier Johnson said. “I don’t know how many fans, but it’s going to be a lot. It’s going to be different.”
“This is a big game for any basketball player,” added senior wing Jared Wilson-Frame. “You dream about being able to play against North Carolina, especially in primetime, playing in a sold-out gym. Everybody dreams about that.”
For Pitt head coach Jeff Capel, wins and losses will of course be the most tangible way to measure progress in his first year as a head coach. But the number of fans that pour through the gates is another way to judge the success he’s been able to have in re-connecting the program to a fanbase that has largely stayed away over the last two seasons. The sellout, and another game already sold out against Duke on Jan. 22, has him encouraged.
“It’s a great sign,” Capel said. “I think our fans have been really good this year. The support that they’ve given us, the energy that we feel from them, especially the Oakland Zoo. I thought our crowd against Colgate was good. We’re grateful. That’s the very first thing. We’re grateful that our fans wfeel the connection with this team to want to come out and to support. That’s something that we do not take for granted.”
Cape has understood from day one that he not only needed to re-build Pitt’s basketball team, but re-build the program all the way from the ground up. He’s gone out of his way to connect with fans in person and on social media and the team has bought into that concept.
“The thing that I’ve tried to do and we’ve tried to do since we’ve been here
is to engage with [the fans] but for them to understand that this is their team, too,” Capel said. “It’s not just us in this fight. We need everyone in the fight with us. We all represent the University of Pittsburgh and we all represent the University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball and so we have to fight together in order to get it back to what all want to get it back to and then once we do that, and we want to take it to anther level.”
He understands that with 12,500 or so eyeballs on his team on Saturday, it will have a larger-than-usual influence on the way the fanbase feels about them going forward.
“We want to come out and we want to perform,” Capel said. “We want to play well, we want to play hard, we want to give them something to feel a connection with. I think we’ve done that so far. Hopefully Saturday is another step in that direction.”