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With Joy Hard to Find During Pandemic, Jeff Capel Continuing to Look Out For His Players



Opening the season with a loss to St. Francis (PA) was not how anyone imagined Pitt’s season to start. 

The Panthers, heading into the third season of the Jeff Capel era, had improved their record each of the past two years and had brought in a top-30 recruiting class. The future was looking bright. 

However, after that initial loss, fans of the team quickly counted Pitt out, saying it was looking like another disappointing season in Oakland and a failed experiment with the hiring of Capel.

Preparing for his team’s first high-major opponent in Northwestern a day later, Capel took to the microphone on Dec. 8 while the Panthers sat at 2-1 with a close win over Drexel and again, the loss at St. Francis. 

“I don’t know what’s being said, but I think it’s shameful if stuff is being negatively said or being written about a kid,” he said. “I saw something the other day where Kentucky is struggling. Well, the world is struggling. You don’t know what these kids are going through. I know what my guys are going through, I know how hard this is for them.”

In a season where cancellations and outbreaks have become more common than big wins and buzzer beaters, Capel has continuously been looking out for his team and all of the kids across the country who have been devoting their time to their teams during such an unusual year. 

Fast forward to last week, and the Panthers had lost three-straight games, bringing their record from 8-2 to 8-5, and were now preparing to take on one of the best teams on their schedule in Virginia Tech. The Hokies came into the game ranked No. 16 in the nation, with an impressive resume that included wins over Virginia, Villanova, and Clemson. On paper, it surely looked as if Pitt’s losing streak would be extended to four. 

However, Capel’s team had other plans. 

Pitt, led by a fiery Xavier Johnson, upset the ranked Hokies, winning 83-73 at home. Johnson had a career day, scoring a career-high 32 points on 11-of-17 shooting, all while coming off the bench for the first time this season. This team had proven it was not like the past few Pitt teams. The losing streak that everyone thought would continue had been snapped. 

After the game, not only Johnson, but also the rest of his teammates and the staff, went wild in the locker room, celebrating Pitt’s first win over a ranked opponent since Jan. 2019. The Panthers seemed to be back on track and ready to make a late-season push for an NCAA Tournament bid.

While those post-win moments are certainly a bright spot in an otherwise dark year for all, Capel said Monday, shortly after the celebrations, you have to snap back to reality. 

“I am grateful for the fact that these guys are able to play. I am grateful for that. I do see the struggles that they had at times when playing, with everything that’s going on. Maybe I am sounding like a Debbie-Downer, but there hasn’t been much joy to be honest with you, with the season. Even if you have a great win, it’s joy in that moment, but then you go back to reality, and the reality of the situation is not good just with what is going on, in my opinion.”

Although Pitt could not come out on top against a very talented Virginia team, fans and bracketologists alike seem to agree that the Panthers are still in, or at least near, consideration for the NCAA tournament. Pitt has at six games remaining, and that number may increase if it can reschedule cancelled matchups against Florida State and Louisville. 

Granted the Virginia game is not one to be too hung-up about, it is still an additional tally added to the loss column, and coming off of a huge win over Virginia Tech, a loss like that may feel like a let-down. On Monday, Capel spoke on how tough it has been for his guys and everyone around the country to deal with these types of losses on the court during a year in which so much has been lost off the court. 

“I think these young people are dealing with a lot this year,” he said. “I think everyone, the players, the coaches, I think everyone is in need of mental health help with everything that’s going on. You have this game that we love and that you want, that normally brings joy to your life even sometimes in the losses because you’re playing, you get to do something you love, you get to compete, all the things with that, and that’s messed up this year. There are no fans, the competition is just weird, it is, it’s weird, the games are weird, and then you’re judged by it.

“You’re judged by what’s talked about, what’s written. So if you have a bad performance, in the past, for a young person, that can be difficult in general but I think it may be magnified right now. Then when you’re being criticized for it, I think that can be even tougher just with everything that you’re doing. So there is not a lot of joy this year. As a coach, after a loss, I am mindful of that. You try to figure out the best way to get whatever it is you want to get accomplished talking to your team.”

Although at times this season Capel has seemed, which he admitted, like a Debbie Downer, there is still one thing that is undeniable. The third-year head coach cares, a lot, about his players. And while Pitt may not be where it wants to be as a program yet, it is looking like he is the right man for the job of bringing the program back to the top of the college basketball world.

After its game against Louisville that was originally scheduled for Feb. 10 was cancelled, Pitt now has an additional four days to rest and prepare for Georgia Tech on Sunday, Feb. 14. The road contest in Atlanta will tip off at 4 p.m. and will be broadcast on ACC Network.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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