This story originally appeared as a four-part series. It is being reproduced here in its entirety, along with the audio of our the conversation with Jeff Capel.
With the 2020 NCAA Tournament canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, plenty of sports networks took their suddenly open time slots and filled them with classic games of tournaments past.
One of those games was the 2015 NCAA title game, when Duke beat Wisconsin, 68-63 to win the program’s fifth NCAA championship.
Current Pitt head coach Jeff Capel was the Blue Devils’ associate head coach that season, and like many other, he watched along, tweeting at Duke alums like Grayson Allen, Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones during the game.
It was clear the bond that Capel still holds with the members of the last championship team that he was a part of, and that is something that is often repeated around the world of sports.
Teams that win a title often forge long-standing bonds in doing so and players that might have otherwise drifted apart over the course of their careers — especially after leaving college — end up maintaining a strong bond.
In fact, that bond is sometimes credited as a reason for teams’ championship success, citing the longstanding closeness of the players as an ingredient in winning, and not a result of it.
It’s a bit difficult to separate the two empirically and it quickly becomes a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum.
But you can count Capel as one that believes that the combination of personalities on that Duke team, and a couple of others that he’s been a part of in his 20 years as a college basketball coach, was an important factor in that team’s success.
“I’d probably say two teams during my time when I was at Duke — and I was there for seven years — there were two teams, where it just stood out, right from the beginning, that it was different,” Capel said to Pittsburgh Sports Now. “Like there was just a different feel.
“It was just different and it’s hard to explain it, but it was just different. And I think the thing is, when you have that, is that everybody is completely, 100%, all in. It’s all about the team. There are no individual agendas. There are individual agendas, because there always are, but it wasn’t where it was like the prevalent thing or it was a problem. There was no ego problem. There were egos, but there was no ego problem.”
Greatest TEAM I’ve ever been a part of! https://t.co/ThvL7Uf8cb
— Jeff Capel (@jeffcapel) April 2, 2020
If the correct mix of personalities is one part of the formula, overcoming some adversity might be another.
“The first time I experienced it there was my second year and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that both times I felt this way, it was after Duke had lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament,” Capel said.
“So my first year there [2011-12], we lost to Lehigh. The next year, I thought we were the best team in the country, and then Ryan Kelly, in the middle of conference, breaks his foot. We still got to the Elite Eight, but we were never able to kind of make that push, at the end, because Ryan wasn’t completely healthy and Seth Curry wasn’t completely healthy that whole year.
“But it was a team, man, where, everyone really understood their role. They accepted their role, they embraced it. But everybody was all about us winning. You know, you had a really good group of seniors with Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry. And you had some young guys.”
But according to Capel, the biggest thing was the leadership that the Blue Devils got from its older, more experienced players.
“The guys took care of the team,” he said. “You know, it didn’t have to be coach or any of the assistants. The team was led by the guys, by the players by the older guys. There was accountability. There were all those things. That year, I definitely felt it.”
“Then you have the 2014-15 season certainly felt the same way. Again, we’re coming off losing to Mercer in the first round. You had a good group of older guys with Quinn Cook as the older guy. Marshall Plumlee was a junior. But then you have a group of freshmen that came in that were talented but were all about the team.
“They didn’t have an ego problem, so they accepted Quinn Cook as the leader. You know, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones, guys that were really good and are really good, but they understood their place on the team.”
Amen, Champ! And YOU LED US ALL YEAR!!! https://t.co/dPN9OHYAv7
— Jeff Capel (@jeffcapel) April 7, 2020
Capel was a part of many good teams at Duke, including one that won 29 games and made the Elite Eight in 2017-18, but he maintains the special way that 2013-15 team connected was what helped it to the title.
“During the rest of my time there, I mean, every year we had talent. But those two teams, from the beginning, at least for me, felt different,” he said. “I look at the 2016-17 team at Duke. I thought it was maybe one of the most talented teams that we had, from top to bottom. But it took a while to get everyone that year on the same page. Now, part of it was that there were injuries. We had some injuries early in the season that made it a little bit more difficult, to have everyone on the same page.
“When we got back whole and we had everyone, you had some guys trying to prove themselves. They had to show this and you know, you’re competing, not against the opponent, but you’re competing against stuff you’re hearing on TV, stuff you’re looking at other guys do and things like that.
“So you definitely have to have the talent. That’s paramount. But I think the really good teams and programs, they certainly have talent, but they have talent that works together, that they understand how much they meet each other. It’s not about one person. It’s about the team, it’s about the program. And what they do is that they really understand that if they do that, then everyone individually has success. Everyone individually gets the love, gets the attention. And you’re able to showcase your talent. Your talent is able to come to the forefront.”
Of course, there’s a reason it’s so difficult to win a national championship. About the only thing more difficult for a college coach right now than getting talented players is getting talented players that want to fit into a team concept and be at a school for the length of time required to gain that experience.
THE VALUE OF EXPERIENCE
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 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 Cook and junior Jefferson.
“I think you have to have some guys that have been there,” Capel said. “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.
“You can have the most talented freshmen … but they don’t know,” Capel 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, and 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.
“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 ahead of its 2012 Super Bowl title.
“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 a horrific 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.
RECRUITING FOR INTAGIBLES
When it comes to the things that separate championship teams from equally talented but less successful ones, leadership and the fit of individuals into a team concept is an important one.
When it comes to the ability to become a leader through the lens of college basketball, experience is paramount. Players aren’t going to be leaders as freshmen. Teams need elder statesmen that have been there and done that.
But leadership isn’t a mathematical equation. Experienced players plus younger players does not necessarily equal team chemistry.
Not all players will become leaders, no matter how experienced they become. Not all young players will even rise to the level of being a good follower. Some players will gladly cede their personal goals to teams ones. Others will do so only in certain situations, and others, not at all.
When it comes to recruiting a basketball player, certain things are fairly easy to ascertain: His height, his weight, his wingspan. What positions he’s likely to play. How strong and fast he is. What his grades are like.
With even a minimal amount of effort, more can be gleaned, like what his strengths and weaknesses are as a player. Can he shoot? Is he a willing rebounder? Is he athletic? With a few minutes’ worth of film, what kind of on-court player a prospect will be — or at least could be — is pretty easily ascertained.
Even us dolts in the media can figure that part out. What’s left, however, is the most difficult thing to figure out about a basketball prospect. Those intangible things that Capel trumpeted as reasons that his 2014-15 Duke squad was able to achieve what other, perhaps more talented versions of it, were not able to.
But intangibles, are of course, intangible for a reason. They don’t show up on film, or even through a quick look at a recruiting showcase. They aren’t necessarily easily obtained even through multiple conversations with a prospect, his coach, family and hangers-on.
There is no magic formula to figure out if a player is going to be a good fit with a team, personality-wise, character-wise. It can be difficult to tell if a player will be that four-year leadership guy, a one-and-done that will still buy into the team concept, or an unhappy player that becomes a locker room cancer.
“You try to build a relationship,” Capel said. “You try to get to know a kid. His family. You try to watch how they interact with coaching, how they accept coaching. You try to get to know him.”
Those things take time. Some, can be built through years in the industry, and relationships with high school and AAU coaches. That’s one of the reasons coaches go back to the same schools and programs over and over again: they trust that the lower-level coaches are being honest with them about what kind of person they’re getting in addition to the player. Where they’ve had success and built trust, coaches are likely to return.
When long-established build recruiting pipelines to certain schools or regions, it’s more about that than it is badly wanting or needing a player from a specific region or school.
But throughout a coach’s career, those relationships are bound to undergo disruptions. High school and AAU coaches change jobs as often as college coaches do, and change for a college coach might mean recruiting a totally different type of athlete, from a totally different place.
Look, for example, at the career of current Pitt assistant Tim O’Toole. A New York native, he spent time recruiting the northeast for Syracuse, Duke and Seton Hall, big-name programs that the need top-level recruits in the country.
Then, he became the head coach at Fairfield. The relationships he built with all the coaches and players on the top teams? It’s pretty unlikely that the kind of players that would consider Duke, Seton Hall and Syracuse would ever think about Fairfield.
After nearly a decade with the Stags, he moved across the country, working at Stanford and California, and had to start all over with new relationships on the West Coast.
When a coach moves to a new job, it’s frequently a time of crisis for that program. When coaches leave, players transfer. The new coach comes in and has to quickly find someone able to fill those holes and get the program back on its feet.
“It happens late and so everything is quick,” Capel said. “You’re trying to build these relationships. You’re trying to get to know people. There’s a hurry.
“When I took over [at Oklahoma], you’re trying to recruit, you’re trying to recruit in an area where you don’t know. And so you go out and you know you need players, and, you know, a lot of times it’s March, sometimes in April, where you’re trying to do this and you’re trying to sign guys right away. And so how much are you really gonna know them, unless you recruited them at the previous place where you were? That’s the part that’s difficult, you know? If you have time, then you get to know a guy.”
This time around for Capel, he was able to land Pitt’s best recruiting class in six years in his first six months on the job, when he convinced Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney to commit in Pitt’s Class of 2018. But two years later, McGowens has left the program after a season where Pitt struggled with consistency, resiliency, and handling success — hallmarks of a team lacking in intangibles.
With more time, though Capel, feels better about the way his 2020 class shapes up in that regard.
“We’ve had a chance to get to know them,” he said. “I’ve known John [Hugley] since I took the job here. We’ve known Max [Amadasun]. When I got the job, I went up to Lutheran. During that first week, I went up, just you introduce myself and see and watch them work out. I got to meet those guys. The same thing with Noah [Collier]. We’ve had a chance to get to know him.
“We’ve had a chance to get to know these guys, and so we know a little bit more about them, about who they are, you know their families, know a little bit more about their background. That’s what you try to do. You try to establish a relationship. You watch, you get to know, you ask questions.”
Of course, feeling good about the way those three — along with recently-signed commit Femi Odukale, who Capel could not yet discuss — is only half the battle. Plenty of coaches have felt good about their class before it gets on campus on to find out how wrong they were.
“You do all those things and then you hope,” Capel said. “But man you know, you know this just like I do. You don’t really know anyone man until you working with them every day, every day. You watch how they work, how they deal with adversity, how they deal with success, all of those things.”
Capel is still working on the 2020 class, with a pair of open scholarships. His top target is Erie small forward Will Jeffress, another player that Capel has been interested in for a long time.
He’s also actively pursuing Class of 2021 players, as they enter the summer before their senior year, which is usually when the recruiting process really starts to heat up. But with the current coronavirus shutdown, visits have been canceled, with a dead period extended through the end of May and the AAU season looks like it will be abbreviated, if it happens at all.
That’s going to make it tough for coaches to really get to know the players that are out there, in addition to knowing their game.
“The spring and summer are huge for coaches and for prospects,” he said. “For us, it gives us an opportunity. During the season, not a lot of coaches go out, especially head coaches, and so you don’t get to see your kid as much. During the spring and summer, that’s the offseason for us and so we do get a chance to get out, even if it’s going to watch a kid workout in his high school and watch his team practice.
“Certainly, the AAU events provide us an opportunity to see a lot of guys in one setting and to really see, go against elite competition all the time. Whether it’s the shoe circuit things with the Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, or some of these other events you get to see, really good competition.
“One of the things the NCAA did last summer, was that they gave us those two weekends, I think they were in June, where we could go and high schools had events. I thought those are really good because you see them with their high school team, who they’re with, really during the whole year.”
Instead, Capel will spend more time than usual watching film and working past relationships to try to build an understanding about what each prospect is like as a person. There will be holes in that knowledge, but it will a universal problem.
“Where you can see some hiccups is that you won’t have a chance to establish those relationships,” Capel said. “You won’t have a chance to see a kid play as much and to maybe see how he handles adversity.
“In a Friday night game, the kid has a bad game. How does he respond on Saturday morning? Or kid plays his but off on Saturday morning, how does he come back Saturday afternoon? Does he handle success? Does he handle adversity? Can he make shots? Is he doing other stuff? You’re not gonna be able to see those things.”
Recruiting is the lifeblood of a college basketball team, and with early departures for the pro game and rampant transfers, it could be argued that it’s never been more important to be able to reliably re-stock teams with talented players that are also good personality fits.
“We’re all hopeful, coaches that we’re able to have a July [recruiting period], but certainly that’s not the most important thing,” Capel said. “The most important thing is our country being healthy and us being able to have long term health, that’s the main thing.”
Capel hinted earlier when talking about how he feels about the Class of 2020 that he’s brining in where he thinks Pitt is in the spectrum of becoming the kind of championship team that this series has discussed building.
Coming from an 0-19 season in conference play, in one of the most challenging conferences in college basketball, Pitt under Capel has hard farther to go than almost any other program in the country.
HOW CLOSE IS PITT?
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 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 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 and then you’ll have those two juniors with with Xavier and with Au’Diese, 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. 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 Collier, power forward Hugley and center 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 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 Capel has, and his team is following the recipe, and gathering the ingredients.