PITTSBURGH — Jeff Capel spent four years playing at Duke for Coach K as well as eight years on the Blue Devils’ bench as an assistant coach before coming to Pitt.
Last season, in Capel’s first season as the Panthers’ head coach, he faced off against his alma mater and mentor for the first time in his career. On Tuesday night, he will take his Pitt team across enemy lines and play against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time as an opponent.
In last year’s game, Pitt lost 79-64 to a Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett led No.1 ranked Duke team. This year’s Duke team doesn’t have quite the firepower, but as a No. 9 ranked team, this will be the Panthers’ toughest challenge on their remaining schedule.
On Monday at his press conference, Capel didn’t want to get all ‘rah-rah’ about heading back to Duke with the chance of upsetting his former team. Instead, he’s treating it like any other business trip, but it just so happens they have to play against a top-10 team at a place where he’s had far ‘too many’ memories.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to play a great team,” Capel said. “They’re one of the best teams in the country right now, and they’re one of the best programs in the history of basketball. So, it’s good to see where we stand right now.”
This game doesn’t come at a very opportune time for Capel and his team. They lost on the road at Syracuse on Saturday, now have a quick turnaround, and will travel to play the Blue Devils at 9 p.m. Tuesday. Duke hasn’t played a game since last Tuesday when they routed Miami 89-59 at home.
“This part of the season is difficult,” Capel said. “It’s a grind. Guys are a little tired; guys are a little banged up.”
Capel has said that he has laid off of his guys a little in recent practices, with the attempt to be able to exert more energy come against Duke, because they will need every bit of it.
Duke is the No. 1 offensive team in the ACC this year. They are averaging 82.9 points per game, which is nearly seven points per contest more than the next best offensive team Florida State [76.0]. Pitt averages just 66.4 points.
Although Duke has two conference losses (at Clemson and home vs. Louisville), they have a 17.9-point margin during their eight ACC games. No. 2 on that list is Louisville at 7.8.
To add more difficulty to this opportunity, traveling to Duke and playing in front of the Cameron Crazies is nothing you can simulate leading up to the game. But going up the game before against a Syracuse team that plays a unique 2-3 zone and plays in a massive dome that can be difficult for shooters – that’s about as close as a young team is going to get to experiencing something uncomfortable like playing at Duke.
“It’s [Cameron Indoor] one of the great places in college basketball, in all of sports, to play,” Capel said about his old home.
He will surely relay that message to his team sometime before tipoff on Tuesday because he isn’t going to want to come out flat in a building that means so much to him personally.
“When I played there, I always felt like it was an honor. When I coached there, I felt the same, and I’m sure I’ll feel the same way as an opponent.”