Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series with Pitt head coach Jeff Capel about the makeup of championship basketball teams. Part One dealt with leadership.
When it comes to building a championship-level college basketball team, talent is awfully important. That much seems obvious. What’s less obvious is the impact of less-tangible factors in what makes a successful team successful.
Leadership, and the resulting level of connection between the players, is also important, at least according to Pitt head coach Jeff Capel, who saw that factor play large in Duke’s 2014-15 NCAA Tournament title when he was the Blue Devils’ associate head coach.
But when talking about a team culture, leadership generally goes hand-in-hand with another factor: experience. It’s pretty rare for a freshman college basketball player to be one of the leaders on his team. It’s nearly unheard of for a freshman to be one of the leaders of a team that goes onto win a championship.
Instead, it usually requires some elder statesmen to fulfill that leadership role. For Duke in 2015, Capel was able to rely on veterans like senior Quinn Cook and junior Amile Jefferson.
“I think you have to have some guys that have been there,” Capel said to Pittsburgh Sports Now. “I think you have to have some guys that understand it and you have to have guys that understand that they’ve they’ve been through tough times, they’ve been through adversity and they’ve learned how to kick adversity’s butt. They’ve learned how to beat it. They’ve learned how to overcome.”
That’s interesting, because perhaps the most notable part of Capel’s tenure at Duke was the change in philosophy with regards to one-and-done-type players from legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Before Capel, Duke had the No. 16 recruiting class in the country in 2010. In 2011, it was No. 9. The 2015 team was playing with members of the No. 9 2013 class and the No. 1 2014 class, including No. 1 overall recruit Jahlil Okafor, No. 8 Tyus Jones and No. 13 Justise Winslow. It was a historic recruiting class that led Duke to the title in their first and only season of college basketball. Still, Capel said, it wasn’t all about those talented freshmen.
“You can have the most talented freshmen … but they don’t know,” he said. “And it takes them a while. They don’t know. This is different. I mean, I worked, when I was at Duke, with some of the most talented freshmen, maybe ever in this conference.
“But there’s an adjustment, the speed, the how much you work, the length of the season, the pressure. All of those things, they were on you. And so how do you get accustomed? I think it helps when you have older guys. I don’t think it necessarily has to be a senior. If you have a junior that’s been through it, you know Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, those guys, by the time they became juniors, they could really help in that sense because they had two years of experience.”
According to Capel, those talented freshmen were able to thrive because they had those experienced players alongside them all season. Even though he, Krzyzewski and the rest of the Duke staff had plenty of experience (and Coach K had already won four titles), it means more when it comes from within the locker room.
“I just think you need experience,” Capel said. “I think experience is the thing that helps those young guys and to me, it always can’t come from the coach. … I think [Krzyzewski is] the best coach ever. If he’s not, he’s in the conversation, and the conversation is very short. And as great as he was, you know, when I played, when you get to like mid January, February, you get tired of him.”
When Capel was a freshman, Duke came close to winning the tournament, losing by four to Arkansas in the national championship game. By the time he returned to Duke as an assistant in 2011, Krzyzewski and company had won two more titles to go along with his earlier 1991 and 1992 championships. But Capel noticed an important change in tactic from his former coach upon his return.
“It’s interesting, when I went back there and worked, he gave us, the assistants, a lot of responsibility,” Capel said. “He allowed us to talk, a lot more than the assistants did when I played there. I remember one day talking to him, and he said, ‘I don’t want them to get tired of my voice.’
“It’s a long season and so that’s where there has to be that voice in the locker room. To me, you always hear ‘an extension of the coach.’ I don’t know if I agree with that 100%. I just think it needs to be a voice of the program. Someone that really loves it, and I guess that is an extension of the coach, but someone that really loves and understands the program and the culture of the program, and is all about winning. I think the best teams, there’s some one, at least one, usually there’s multiple, but there are people inside the locker room.”
Capel is a lifelong Steelers fan, but he enjoys retelling a story from Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed about how the team changed it s culture ahead of its 2012 Super Bowl title, stemming from, of all things, litter in the locker room.
“It’s all those little things,” Capel said. “People think that it’s just cliche. It’s really, really not. I’ve been on teams. I played for national championship when I was a player, was part of a team as a head coach that went to an Elite Eight. We were a great team that year in Oklahoma. Had some teams at VCU that were really good that got to the tournament. At that time, that was the ceiling. In the makeup of them, all those things. The one thing in common with all those teams that, I’ve been a part of, even with some of those USA basketball teams, is that there was leadership and responsibility on the team besides the coach.
“The players owned it, and I think it takes time for that.”
Of course, time is difficult to come by in college athletics. The median current head coach tenure is just four years. Experience might be even more difficult to acquire. Between early departures for professional basketball and the transfer portal, it has never been harder for a Division I basketball coach to get his team to have experience.
Pitt has not had a senior that played his entire career with the Panthers since Jamel Artis, Chris Jones and Michael Young graduated in 2017. Terrell Brown has a chance to become the first next winter. While Pitt’s situation has been made worse than average by a pair of coaching changes in the interceding years, it’s not an extreme outlier.
Virginia Tech also had no four-year scholarship seniors last year. Boston College, Miami, North Carolina and Wake Forest had just one. It’s probably not a coincidence that those were the bottom six schools in ACC play.
“It’s really, really hard right now, just because of the environment of college basketball,” Capel said. “It’s different than it was 10 years ago, five years ago. Every year you see this. Now it’s the transfer portal, but you see it increasing. You see the numbers, it’s astronomical.”
According to VerbalCommits.com, 730 players have entered the transfer portal since start of the 2019-20 basketball season. That’s an average of over two per team. Players are still submitting their information for this June’s selection, but last year, another 175 college players sought early entrance into the NBA Draft. Most of them eventually returned to their college teams, but the ones that didn’t left hard-to-replace holes.
“When I played, Tim Duncan was in school for four years,” Capel said. “[Antawn] Jameson and [Vince] Carter were in school for three years. Come on, man. Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace were there for two years. There’s no way that would happen anymore.”
For Capel, it’s not just a basketball problem, but a reflection of where we are as a society that so many demand the ability to reach their personal goals, not just eventually, but immediately.
“So it’s way different than that, but again, I look at five years ago, and how different the climate is right now than it was five years ago,” he said. “So it, is challenging, because, I think in our society in general, and I think it spills over to athletics, everyone wants everything fast. Everything wants everything to happen so fast and they expect it. …
“It’s not just at our level. You look at the high school levels. You look at kids changing teams, often. You look at them changing AAU programs. One of the funny things I always look at is, we won’t be able to experience it this year because of what’s going on, but normally, there’s a weekend, it’s normally towards the last two weekends in April. That’s usually one of the first times we can go out to AAU events, and It’s always amazing to me that after the first weekend, you can see how many kids change teams, because it didn’t go for them the way they expected it to go. So, quickly they change. And normally it’s always someone else’s fault. Always.”
Capel has often re-told the story of his freshman year at Duke — in the midst of the most successful of his four teams there — and how Krzyzewski was still coaching him hard. He’d call home to complain to his mother, not knowing she was relating all of that to his father, Jeff Capel II, who was at the time, the head coach at North Carolina A&T.
His father drove to Durham to deliver the return message: “Stop calling home and complaining. And just play.”
“That’s different now,” Capel said. “The parents are very different now. The families are very different. And that’s not just with basketball, that’s just in general. And so I just think everything is different, which makes at times, a little bit more challenging. It’s still nothing that can’t be done, but it does make it a little bit more challenging to do it.”
So when a coach takes over a new team, there’s always going to be turnover. He also is usually recruiting different players than he was at his last job, and also usually needs to get them recruited and signed in a hurry so that they can make an impact before his time runs out and the cycle starts over again.
How can a coach accomplish all of that?
More in the third part of PSN’s series with Capel on building a championship basketball team.