Tuesday night at Petersen Events Center figures to be a strange night for Pitt head coach Jeff Capel.
He’s been a head coach at the Division I level for 329, but the 330th will the be the first game against his alma mater, Duke, as the No. 2 Blue Devils visit Pittsburgh.
“It’ll be weird,” Capel said. “First of all, that’s the jersey that I wore. You have so many relationships with the guys that are playing there now, coaching a lot of them and then recruiting process with all the freshmen and getting to know them.”
It’s also the first time that Capel will coach against his former college coach, boss and mentor, Mike Krzyzewski.
“He means so much to me,” Capel said. “I’ve had a relationship with him since I was 16 years old. … When I was 16, 17 years old, I believed in him. I swear by him now, because I know who he is, I know the kind of man that he is, the impact that he’s had on my life and the impact that he’s had on the lives of everyone that’s worn that jersey. He’s special.”
Capel’s faith in Krzyzewski is easy to understand. He’s one of the most celebrated coaches in college basketball history, having won five national titles and well over 1,000 games. But the mentor has just as much faith in his disciple.
“Nothing surprises me about what Jeff has done,” Krzyzewski said on Monday’s ACC teleconference. “He’s done a terrific job”
Capel told the story on Monday of his disastrous sophomore season, when the Blue Devils went 2-14 in ACC play and Krzyzewski suddenly found his seat warm a year removed from a national title win.
That rebuild was nothing like what Capel has undertaken at Pitt, but Krzyzewski sees similarities in the way Capel has bought into the history of the program and the culture of the city.
“He embraced Pittsburgh, not just the school but the city,” Krzyzewski said. “He understood right from the beginning that Pittsburgh basketball was good before he got there. It just hasn’t been good for a little bit. He reignited the brand while doing his stuff, too, so it wasn’t just Jeff Capel. He was bringing the past and introducing the future of what his vision would be. … I think he’s done a masterful job of that.”
Of course, Capel has also gotten some good players to come to Pitt, and that’s helped. But the young talent that he’s amassed still pales in comparison to the class of R.J. Barrett, Tre Jones, Cameron Reddish and Zion Williamson that he helped put together a year ago. He’ll now be tasked with beating three of those four, as Jones is out with a shoulder injury.
“Those four freshmen, they’re all really, really good and they fit together and they had a great relationship,” Capel said.
Capel will be able to leverage his knowledge of the players and Duke’s systems to craft his counter-attack but that will only go so far in overcoming the abilities of the Blue Devils’ superior athletes.
“Like the great Mike Tyson said, ‘Everyone has a game plan until they get hit,’” Capel said.
An upset may not be in the cards — the Panthers are 13.5-point underdogs — but there’s plenty of mutual respect and appreciation between the current Duke head coach and former Duke assistant, and Capel said he’s rooting for Duke to do well — outside of Tuesday night.
“Other than, I’m as big of a fan as there is of that program, of that team and of those guys,” Capel said.