NEW YORK — In Pitt’s season-ending loss to Boston College, as well as many of its losses earlier in the season, one of the issues that plagued the Panthers was pure talent level, or the lack thereof.
The Panthers had just one player selected to an All-ACC team, and it was its leading scorer on the year, John Hugley, who was selected as an honorable mention. The problem is that selection being as low as it was — compared to Hugley earning first, second, or third team — is a reflection on the talent surrounding Hugley rather than Hugley himself.
Hugley dominated the majority of opposing teams he faced down low. Without question, he was the guy that opposing teams prepared for. He was the guy that opposing coaches circled and said, “We are going to throw two of you on him the second he touches the ball, and we are not going to be concerned with any of Pitt’s other players.”
All year, teams could double team Hugley without even being scared of who else Pitt had on the floor. The talent around Hugley was not even enough to force teams away from sending two of their five players — 40% of their guys on the floor — at Hugley.
“We have to get better players. I mean, that’s the reality of it. It’s nothing against — it’s not anything personal. We have to continue to add better players. We have to recruit better. All those things we have to do better. We have to continue to develop guys. We have to continue to help them reach their potential as players. Those are things that we have to continue to do.”
There doesn’t seem to be a specific place that talent infusion needs to occur, according to Capel. It’s both a problem of specific personnel — the team played with a true point guard or a top 3-point threat — and an overall lack of depth that played out through a lack of bench scoring.
“I think every area,” Capel said when asked where the team needs to improve this offseason. “I think every area. We have to get better in every area of the game — shooting, ball handling, decision-making, depth, all of those things. We have to develop the guys in our program, then we have to go out and get players. I mean, that’s the life blood of every program. So, it’s not just us. Like you have to continue to add. You have to continue to develop in all those things. That’s what we’ll look forward to doing.”
While drastically improving any roster, even if it already has a star to build around – is still a monumental challenge, Capel does have one tool that he can look to for quick help to build around Hugley with: the portal.
In April 2021, college athletics changed forever when the one-time transfer rule was ratified. With the ratification, players were now allowed to play immediately if they transferred to a new school, rather than sitting out a season. This ratification has enhanced the craziness of what Capel has previously called ‘free agency,’ and has shown him that teams can rebuilt quicker than ever before.
Wake Forest and Miami, two ACC foes, are two programs that have taken advantage of the rule and added program-changing talent through the portal. After finishing last season 6-16, Steve Forbes, in his second year, has led the ‘Deacs to a 23-8 record this season and has the team in great position to make a run at both an ACC Title and a deep NCAA tournament run. In the last two years, the Demon Deacons have added the ACC Player of the Year in Alondes Williams, its second-leading scorer in Jake LaRavia, its third-leading scorer in Daivien Williamson, and more.
The Hurricanes underwent a similar transition. After finishing with a losing record in each of the past three seasons, including a 4-15 ACC record in 2020-21, Miami added several big transfer pieces and is now 22-9 overall and 14-6 in the ACC heading into day two of the conference tournament. Jim Larrañega added several transfers ahead of this season, including point guard Charlie Moore and wing Jordan Miller, who have become the ‘Canes’ third and fourth-leading scorers this year.
“There’s been an adjustment period for everyone,” Capel said on Tuesday. “I thought, you know, a couple of the guys that we got from the transfer portal were very good for us, with J.B., with Jamarius, and with Mo. Teams can drastically change if you are able to get the right guys. In some cases, you get lucky. In our league, you look at Wake Forest and you look at the huge jump that they made just from the portal and the development of a couple of their returning guys with Mucius and Williamson. Miami did a good job in the portal. So, you can change. Again, you have to be able to develop. You have to be able to get the right pieces. The name, image, and likeness can really, really assist you with that.”
While Capel did add those talented players that he mentioned — Burton and Gueye — the Panthers still went 11-21 this season, with those guys paired up with Pitt’s homegrown talent that included the top-35 ranked 2020 recruiting class. So what’s been the issue? Why haven’t the Panthers been able to break through?
“I think we, you know, the very first thing is I think it’s really hard to win,” Capel answered. “I think, when you don’t have a reference point of winning and older guys in your program that have won, I think that’s the most difficult thing to understand the discipline daily that it takes in order to become consistent. We have not had that since I’ve been here. Hopefully that’s something we can have as we move forward in the ever-changing landscape of college athletics, especially college basketball.”
“But it takes discipline,” he continued. “It takes commitment. It takes sacrifice. It takes all of these things.”