Pitt head coach Jeff Capel undertook a significant rebuild when he chose to leave Duke and his comfortable assistant job to take over what was one of the worst major conference teams in all of college basketball three years.
In the first two seasons under Capel, he showed the ability to land high-class talent in the recruiting game and the Panthers showed promise, if not a finished product, going 3-15 and 6-14 in league play in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
But the problem with engaging in such a rebuild in college basketball in the current environment is that sometimes, things don’t take a smooth trajectory.
The 2020-21 season was supposed to be the third for Capel’s initial big trio of Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and AuDiese Toney. With a strong freshman class around them and finally eligible transfer Ithiel Horton, Pitt had what looked on paper to be the best yet of Capel’s teams at Pitt.
That changed this summer when McGowens transferred to Nebraska, leaving a big hole in Pitt’s rotations. McGowens was Pitt’s most effective 3-point shooter, third-leading scorer and top perimeter defender. Fellow shooting guard Ryan Murphy also departed with a season of eligibility remaining.
In order to attempt to replace the lost production at shooting guard, Capel went out and got a transfer of his own: Miami (Ohio) guard Nike Sibande.
McGowens was stellar in his debut on Wednesday for the Cornhuskers. He scored 13 points, shooting 5 of 11 and 3 of 7 from 3-point range and had six assists and two turnovers while playing just 24 minutes as Nebraska blew out McNeese State.
Sibande spent Wednesday in his warmups. The senior guard has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA after Miami didn’t back his transfer waiver request. His appeal has not yet been heard by the NCAA.
Without McGowens, Murphy or Sibande, Pitt shot an abysmal 6 of 24 (25%) from 3-point range and 39.7% overall, while turning the ball over 23 times compared to 16 assists in an 80-70 loss to St. Francis.
McGowens would have helped. Sibande would have helped. Without either of them, Horton, Femi Odukale and Gerald Drumgoole combined for five points on 2 of 8 shooting.
Because of the lack of depth at guard, Pitt played a bigger roster at times, leaning on a whole bunch of freshmen making their NCAA debuts. For two years, Pitt has been a young, inexperienced team.
But the departures have meant that they’re still young and inexperienced. Johnson and Toney played 31 and 37 minutes, respectively on Wednesday night. Terrell Brown’s 10 minutes at center were the only other minutes played by upperclassmen. Players making their NCAA debuts accounted for 54 minutes.
Capel is on a treadmill. Instead of reaching the goals he has for the program, he’s spending the first part of Year 3 re-fighting the battles he fought in Years 1 and 2 as he again breaks in young players and still has a team with significant holes that he must find a way to coach around.
That’s not an excuse for losing to St. Francis, a team Pitt’s roster, even as it was rolled out on Wednesday, should beat nine out of 10 times.
But that loss, and the reasons for it, go to show the depth of the challenge presenting Pitt. It’s easy to look at the players recruited and project a roster 2-3 years out and think about what will be or what could be, but given the ease of transferring and the allure of leaving early for pro basketball, that future is never guaranteed.
If Sibande is not eventually granted eligibility, more nights like Wednesday might be in the cards for the Panthers this season.
That doesn’t mean that Capel isn’t the answer or won’t be able to turn things around at Pitt. It just means that the process of going from one of the worst programs in all of major conference basketball to one that can sleepwalk through its non-conference schedule without fear of an embarrassing defeat is going to be a long one.