PITTSBURGH — There aren’t usually a lot of positive takeaways when a team loses by 20 in a game that it was favored to win on its home floor.
That’s especially true when it’s a conference matchup that was a must-win in order to maintain a semblance of hope for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Pitt’s chances were dashed on Wednesday night in a crushing blow as they were chewed up and spit out by a Clemson team that, according to freshman wing Justin Champagnie, just wanted it more.
It’s an issue that has been a theme for the Panthers all season and an exasperated Jeff Capel didn’t seem to have an answer for what it’s going to take for his young team to learn how to bring its own energy to bear on a night-in, night-out basis other than more painful losses.
The most positive thing that happened in the game probably occurred pregame, when the Oakland Zoo followed up the national anthem by singing happy birthday to Capel as his team stood on the floor.
After that, the birthday was all down hill for Capel, who turned 44 on Wednesday.
Surely, the students’ love for Capel should be taken as a good sign. Heck, considering where the program was before he arrived, the fact that there were students in the Petersen Events Center at all to see Pitt play a moribund Clemson team in a 9 p.m. tipoff should be a credit to Capel’s ability to energize the fanbase.
But it was his reaction to it that really cemented Capel’s place as a coach that really gets it: He was embarrassed.
Capel is not a guy that seeks the spotlight. Despite his status one of the highest-profile alumni of college basketball’s highest-profile program, Capel is not in the business of coaching to make himself even more famous. You won’t see his face on a billboard. He’s not hawking products. He speaks to the media because he has to, not because he wants to see his face on television.
So while he appreciated the birthday wishes, he wants the focus to be on his players.
“I’m appreciative,” Capel said. “I’m grateful. They were awesome. But for me, I had my time as a player, man. This is about these guys. I want everything to be about our guys.”
Capel’s guys are having a hard time getting it right now. Capel has energized the fanbase, he’s brought in talented recruits — with more talented ones on the way.
The idea that the head coach wants the players to be the stars and that he’s out to empower those young men instead of usurping them is a powerful one. That should make his players want to play all that much harder for him.
Capel gets it. So far, his players haven’t quite returned the favor for him. If they figure it out — Capel said “when” — look out.