Although Pitt didn’t necessarily have Final Four expectations coming into this season, it was still looking to improve on last year’s record.
Femi Odukale had shown last year that he would be a big piece. John Hugley was back. Nike Sibande and Ithiel Horton returned. So although Pitt had lost some key pieces from last year’s squad in Justin Champagnie, Au’Diese Toney, and Xavier Johnson, improvement on last year’s 10-12 record seemed at least possible with those pieces returning.
Just over one week before the first game of the season, everything changed. Expectations changed, outlooks changed, rotations changed, careers changed.
In the exhibition game against Gannon, Sibande banged knees with an opponent. A few possessions later, he came down awkwardly and hurt his knee. Torn ACL. The team’s second-leading returning scorer, a guy who had averaged more than 13 points per game three times at the division one level and had finally settled in at Pitt, was now out for the year. A devastating blow for the Panthers.
Fast forward four days to Nov. 6. The Panthers have one more weekend before the season starts. Now without their top shot creator, they cannot afford to lose anyone else.
Early in the morning, reports begin to surface of Horton, the team’s leading returning scorer, getting arrested on the South Side for assaulting a police officer. As soon as everything was confirmed, the school suspended him indefinitely. There goes another scoring option for this Panthers team that was already significantly shorthanded.
“It’s been a struggle, it’s absolutely been a struggle,” Capel said on Thursday, exactly one month after the Sibande news was made official. “We’ve been a team that has not shot the basketball well. To start the season, we had three guys out, because Jamarius was out for the first couple of games as well. And even now that he’s played five games, I think he’s been back with us for 14 days, maybe 15 days now, where he’s actually been able to play and do things. So it was a big blow to us, having those three guys out, having only one scholarship guard in Femi. The other guard being a walk-on that has experience, but he’s still a walk-on. So there have been slight adjustments that we’ve tried to make, but it’s been a struggle offensively.
In the one month since Sibande’s injury, Horton’s case was pushed back two months, Pitt was blown out in its season opener against The Citadel, Pitt’s lone commit, four-star Judah Mintz, de-committed from the program, and the Panthers now find themselves sitting at 2-5 heading into the first conference matchup of the year. They are averaging just 60.9 points per game, and Hugley and Odukale are the only two averaging in double figures.
“Look, we have two guys out right now, but I think at a minimum, if they were here, at a minimum, I think it’s 24 points more a game, a minimum, you’d think both of those guys are averaging around 12. Those two guys, with Nike and Ithiel, were two guys that can shoot the basketball from deep. They have pop to them, they’re older, they can drive the basketball, they can create offense for themselves and others. And so, again, when you have those guys out, JB at the beginning, having three guys out, it’s been a huge adjustment. Guys have had to step up in different roles. Guys have had to play more minutes than maybe they anticipated and certainly we anticipated them, in different positions.”
“That’s why for me, I know what we’re going through, and I am proud of the fact that we have continued to show up,” he continued. “Now, are we happy with that? No. We want to win. We are working very hard to do that. I am a big believer, as long as we have the right attitude, we show up, and we work and we have the right mindset, that will eventually happen. It will eventually happen for us. There is no one that’s working harder than our players, my staff, and what we’re doing trying to rectify this. But it’s been a big blow. You take Clark and Beekman off of Virginia. You take Roach and Keels, or Wendell Moore off of Duke. Let’s see how different they are. And so it is different. It’s two big blows but you know what that happens, we have to figure that out, and that’s our job as coaches to figure that out. We’re going to continue to work and hopefully we can figure this thing out.”
For Capel, all he can do is continue to make adjustments. Continue to lead. Continue to adapt to this situation that has only gotten tougher ever since day one of the season during that exhibition game.
“It’s been hard,” he added. “It’s been difficult. It’s been very challenging. I am used to winning, so it’s been difficult. My job as a leader, I think a leader’s job is to show up every day, is to try to be positive. Make sure we’re prepared. Make sure I am prepared for them. I am trying to do everything I can to help our guys have success. I don’t care about me. I have had a lot of success and I have been able to accomplish some things in the game of basketball as a player and as a coach, I have been a part of some amazing experiences. I want these guys to have an amazing experience. So that’s why I hurt. Because we’re not able to do that. We haven’t been able to do that. And so my job right now is to try to show up every day, be positive, make sure we’re prepared, try to teach. One of the things I told them last week, it was Thanksgiving day, in life you go through hard times. Some of you have been through hard times, but when you leave college and you get to the real world, it’s hard. Life is hard, and a big thing about successful people is that they show up even when things aren’t going well. So that’s why I am proud of our guys. In the midst of these very challenging times, we’ve continued to show up, we’ve continued to try to fight. That is something we have to continue to do.”
The Panthers will look to turn things in the right direction against Virginia on Friday, traveling down to Charlottesville to take on Tony Bennett’s 5-3 Cavaliers.
The game will tip off at 8 p.m., and will be televised on ACC Network.