Like most college basketball coaches, Pitt head coach Jeff Capel has a lot of unanswered questions about the upcoming 2020-21 season.
With the season set to open, Capel — like with most other Division I coaches — doesn’t yet have a conference schedule, or a non-conference schedule, even though games are supposed to be starting in a little over a month.
He doesn’t know if or how many fans will be able to attend his team’s games, what the travel protocol is going to be, what the tournaments are going to look like or if there will be tournaments. There are probably more unknowns than knowns at this point.
But Capel has an additional unknown to consider as he attempts to put together his third team at Pitt in the midst of a pandemic: he doesn’t even know if one of his players will be eligible.
Guard Nike Sibande, who transferred to Pitt from Miami University in Ohio this offseason, had his initial request for a waiver denied by the NCAA after a contentious public spat involving his former Miami coaches.
Sibande, who averaged 15.1 points per game while playing over 30 minutes. A night for in three seasons with the RedHawks, was expected to be a big part of Pitt’s backcourt this year, slotting into the shooting guard spot vacated by the transfer of Trey McGowens and graduation of Ryan Murphy, and would have likely fit between point guard Xavier Johnson and wings Au’Diese Toney and Justin Champagnie in Pitt’s starting lineup.
“He gives us a guy that has experience on the college level in the backcourt,” Capel said. “We have Au’Diese, and we have Xavier that have experience. Ithiel [Horton] does, but he hadn’t played in a year. And so Nike would be a guy that gives us experience, he scored over 1500 points and he’s really good athlete. He just gives us another guy that could help create offense for us.”
Horton is another player that can help fill that void, and perhaps so can freshman guard Femi Odukale, who is currently missing practice while he recovers from a broken right arm suffered in a moped accident over the summer.
But it’s still a big question mark for Capel and his staff as they start to put in plays and make plans for the 2020-21 season.
“It’s a really tough position to put universities, to put athletic departments, programs, coaches, athletic directors in,” Capel said. “I’ve been on both sides of it. This is, I think, the first time I’ve been on this side of it.”
Sibande’s first request was denied by the NCAA after Miami did not support the waiver for him to be immediately eligible. The Miami coaches and staff said that Sibande’s waiver request said that he was run off, or told that he no longer had a scholarship available. That wasn’t the case, they said, so they withdrew support for the request. But a copy of Sibande’s wavier request obtained by ESPN said nothing about his scholarship status, instead citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the primary reason Sibande chose to transfer to Pitt.
It’s an ugly process, and one that Capel has a level of understanding. After all, he had to make the same decisions the Miami coaches did when McGowens requested a waiver to play at Nebraskas this season.
“The thing that we have told the kid, that particular university and athletic department, and their coach, is that we’re not going to lie,” Capel said. “So I’m not going to say, ‘He didn’t have a scholarship.’ I don’t believe in running kids off. That’s not who I am. So I’m not gonna say that. I had a coach ask, ‘Well, would you say that he wouldn’t have played next year, be 12th or 13th guy?’ No, I’m not gonna say that. Because he led us in minutes played. I’m not gonna lie.”
“But what I will do, is I’ll support a waiver, because even though the kid left, I care about the kid, right? Like, I’m not gonna do anything to hurt the kid or to get in the kid’s way.
So I’ll give an example: Trey McGowens. I love Trey. Just because he left doesn’t mean that I don’t care about Trey. Trey believed in us when we first got here, before we coached a game here. He didn’t feel like this situation was going to help him going forward. I may not agree with that. But I respect him and I care about him.”
Capel said that McGowens reached out to Pitt assistant Milan Brown about the waiver, and Capel talked to Nebraska coach Fred Hoiburg.
“Fred and I talked the next day, and we went through stuff and things like that,” Capel said. “And I told him like, Look, I’ll do anything I can to help them. I’m gonna let you know, I’m not gonna lie. And so that’s what I’ve tried to do. Because to me, it’s about trying to help the kid continue to fulfill his dream and live out his dream.
“Now, is it right for the NCAA to put the institution that the kid is leaving in that
position? Who’s to say on that, again, about I’m no expert.”
It’s unclear when the NCAA will hear Sibande’s appeal of his initial denial. Some wavier requests are not heard until weeks into the season. Until then, he and Pitt are stuck in a holding pattern, just one more question that Capel cannot answer.
“We’re hopeful that Nike is able to play right away,” Capel said. “He had a really good experience at Miami of Ohio. He really cared about his coaches. He cared about the people there, and he worked his butt off for three years there. And we’re hopeful that the NCAA will grant the appeal and he’ll be able to play.”