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Pitt Basketball

Building a Champion: Jeff Capel on Pitt’s Outlook



Editor’s note: This is the fourth part in a series with Pitt head coach Jeff Capel about the makeup of championship basketball teams. Part One dealt with leadership, Part Two dealt with experience and Part Three on how to recruit for those intangible traits.

A championship-level team needs talent, and a lot of it. In fact, it can be considered the primary ingredient.

While, coaching, scheme, important intangibles and even luck play as big factors, talent is still one of the biggest pieces to the puzzle.

Even a team like still-reigning national champions Virginia, which is known for its stifling defensive scheme and featured a senior and four juniors when it won the NCAA title in 2019, benefitted from some top talent on the roster. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, Jay Huff and De’Andre Hunter were all top-100 recruits and formed the No. 7 recruiting class in the country in 2016 before they won the national championship as juniors.

So when it comes to the entire picture of building that championship-level basketball team, where is Pitt in the process?

The Panthers have not had a top recruiting class like Virginia had in 2016 or Duke had in 2014 when current Pitt head coach Jeff Capel won a title an assistant with the Blue Devils.

Instead, Pitt will return two-thirds of the No. 32 class from 2018 after the offseason departure of Trey McGowens, three-quarters of the No. 49 class after Ryan Murphy’s transfer. Capel and company’s Class of 2020 is currently ranked No. 33 in the country, with two open scholarships remaining.

So, does Pitt have enough talent to compete with blue bloods like Duke and Virginia in the ACC in 2020-21? Maybe not the same level of their conference opponents (even in 30s nationally, Pitt’s recruiting class in seventh in the ACC), but certainly at a level that they have not had in quite some time.

“We’ll have, I think, a pretty good core group of guys returning,” Capel said. “If you look at it, we’ll have one senior with Terrell [Brown] and then you’ll have those two juniors with with Xavier [Johnson] and with Au’Diese [Toney], and certainly Xavier and Au’Diese have really played a lot. They played a lot under me and they’ve had a chance to understand and have a better grip of what it is that we want. Same thing with Terrell.”

While it’s not the bevy of upperclassmen that the Cavaliers featured, it’s the most Pitt has had in quite some time. Brown is poised to be the first player to begin and end his college career with Pitt since Jamel Artis, Chris Jones and Mike Young. Johnson and Toney have started 66 and 63 games, respectively. Combined with Brown’s 45 and Justin Champagnie’s 27, Pitt will shoot up the experience ranks after being the No. 319 team in the nation in that regard in 2019-20.

“Justin was able to play a lot and to gain invaluable experience and understand and have some success, had some adversity, all of those things,” Capel said. “I really liked the way [Abdoul Karim Coulibaly] came on at the end of the year. I thought he finally got a little bit acclimated to the pace, the speed, the terminology, all of those things.”

Additionally, Capel said that freshman wing Gerald Drumgoole never fully recovered from his early-season injury and could be a larger factor than he was in the season past.

“Gerald was really good for us early in the season, and he had an injury that he never recovered from,” Capel said. “I don’t know why, but he never really was back to himself. I think he’ll have a chance to get healthy. I think he can really help us, if he’s healthy.”

In the Class of 2020, Pitt will bring in a phalanx of bigs, with small forward Noah Collier, power forward John Hugley and center Max Amadasun filling the Pitt bench with talent, if not experience. Hugley, one of the top players in Ohio, could make the biggest immediate impact.

Additionally, just-signed guard Femi Odukale will provide length and a collegiate-ready body at guard after taking a prep year.

“I’m excited about the guys that we have coming in,” Capel said. “I think they provide talent, toughness. They’re all good guys, good families. They believe in what it is we’re trying to do you know. We’ve had a chance to establish those relationships, and we’ve been very honest with each other.”

Odukale will help and the addition of so many bigs will take some of the pressure off, but perhaps Pitt’s biggest problem in 2019-20 does not seem to have been whisked away with an offseason of change.

“You couldn’t hide the fact that we were really poor shooting team last year,” Capel said. 
“I wouldn’t even say streaky. I wish we were streaky. … That’s something with all of our guys that we were planning to really work on, and we always work on it, but to change some shots and break some things down, and things like that.”

Instead, with the pandemic putting team summer work solidly into question and many players unable to even shoot at home, large amounts of internal improvement are going to be hard to come by this summer.

“One of the things that I’m nervous about is the fact that this is a big summer for us, as far as development, and are we going to be able to do anything?” Capel said. “Will we be able to work with these guys? Will they be able to get in the gym? Right now, none of them can really get into a gym, and so I’m nervous about that. … I do think we have some guys that are capable of becoming pretty good shooters.”

Pitt is set to take a big jump in experience with four returning starters, three of them upperclassmen and multi-year starters. Capel feels good about the freshman additions, both from a talent perspective and how they fit into the room.

Is it a national championship level of talent? Perhaps not. But Capel is getting there. Five-star Class of 2022 point guard commit Jalen-Hood Schifino has a chance to be Pitt’s best recruit in a decade when he arrives on campus. One or two more of those could give Pitt the talent that it takes.

The foundation of leadership, and connectivity is being built, with experience slowly coming.

Pitt has never won an NCAA tournament, in basketball or anything else for that matter. But Jeff Capel has, and his team is following the recipe, and gathering the ingredients.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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