NEW YORK — The fourth season of Pitt head coach Jeff Capel’s tenure ended Tuesday with a thud, as the Panthers lost by 20 points to Boston College in the first round of the 2022 ACC Tournament.
The loss was the 21st of the season, with Pitt’s 11-21 finish going down as the worst of Capel’s four years, the worst since Kevin Stallings went 8-24 in his final season in 2017-18 and the second-worst season of Pitt basketball since 1976-77.
The biggest question surrounding the program right now is whether Capel should get a fifth season. He said after the game on Tuesday that he has not had substantive conversations with athletic director Heather Lyke on the subject, but believes that he will return.
Of course, Capel’s contract buyout is likely a prohibiting factor in Lyke making a decision, and should give him confidence that he will be back in 2022-23. Maybe a better question is should he?
Capel’s fourth season was his worst at Pitt. Mo Gueye, at worst Pitt’s second-best player this season, is out of eligibility and there are no obvious replacements on the roster. Pitt has no recruits committed in the upcoming class.
There aren’t a lot of reasons for optimism in the fanbase. But jobs are not earned, or retained, based on optimism. They are earned based on being the best available option to solve the problem at hand. That problem at hand has changed throughout Capel’s tenure, but at the current moment, it’s an abject lack of talent, both on the roster and in the hopper, as Capel bluntly assessed on Tuesday:
“We have to get better players.”
So what should give Lyke (or the fanbase) faith that Capel is the person to get those better players, especially when there’s no one committed and the vast majority of the 2022 players are already pledged elsewhere?
Well for one, the transfer portal has essentially eliminated the necessity for teams to build with freshmen. There will be hundreds and hundreds of basketball players made available in the next few weeks, more than enough for Capel or any coach to land some impact players.
The second thing is that Capel has done it before. In his first recruiting class at Pitt, he landed three significant talents in Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney. In his second, he added Justin Champagnie, who is already proving his worth as a pro. In his third class, he got John Hugley, a budding star that looks to be the building block of the 2022-23 team.
He’s also added talent in the transfer portal, with Gueye, Jamarius Burton, Nike Sibande and Ithiel Horton all making an impact on the team over the last two seasons.
The biggest problem with Capel’s tenure has not been a failure to get talented players. It’s been a failure to keep them. The starting lineup on Tuesday in Capel’s fourth entry into the ACC Tournament could very well have been something like Johnson, McGowens, Toney, Champagnie and Hugley.
That would have pushed players like Burton, Horton and Femi Odukale to the bench, where their talent level is probably better suited. Pitt finished its ACC tourney loss with three bench points. Entering play Tuesday, Pitt was 345th in the country in bench points per game.
Those departures are the big reason for Pitt’s fourth-year flop under Capel, but the reasons that Pitt hasn’t had all the players he recruited aren’t exactly all on him.
Since the end of Capel’s second season in 2019-20, McGowens decided he wanted to play the same position as Johnson and transferred. Johnson and Toney transferred after a season of what Capel referred to Tuesday as “infighting and jealousy.” Champagnie left early for the NBA, despite going undrafted. Hugley and Horton have both missed significant time battling off-the-court legal issues. Horton and Sibande both missed time sitting out due to NCAA rules. Sibande missed all of 2021-22 with injury.
“We have had a lot of adversity,” Capel said.
That’s putting it mildly. But it’s hard to hold a coach accountable for injuries or the vagaries of the NCAA waiver process or players coveting what others have. Capel has gotten good players. The ones that have moved on have largely had success elsewhere. The ones that have been with the program have had largely success when they’ve been available.
They just weren’t the right players. Or the right mix of players. The culture of the program was not always enough to overcome the personalities in the room.
It seems that Pitt has taken some steps in that regard. After late-season collapses that included literal infighting in the last two season, this year’s Pitt team showed some resilience in the second half of 2022, bouncing back from back-to-back ugly losses to Virginia Tech to win three straight games in mid-February before fading down the stretch.
“The guys that played a lot, I think they were tired,” Capel said of the tough-to-watch finish. “I think they were mentally and physically fried. Again, it’s no excuse, but we just didn’t play well the last 2 1/2 weeks of the season.”
Again, the lack of depth caused by the departures and lack of availability of the players that Capel has recruited held the team back. That really is the crux of the matter.
It’s also the key going forward. There aren’t a lot of reasons for optimism for Pitt at this point, but the one big one (about 6-foot-9) is the emergence of sophomore forward Hugley as a budding star. An honorable mention All-ACC selection, Hugley led Pitt in scoring and rebounding and seemed to suggest at his post-game press conference that he plans to return to Pitt next season.
Hugley, along with Sibande, who already announced his intention to return, Burton, Horton and Odukale could provide a solid nucleus for next season. With a point guard and a 3-point shooter and perhaps another forward from the transfer portal, Pitt could legitimately expect to improve upon its 2022 season next time around.
But the transfer portal works both ways. There’s no guarantee Hugley returns. There’s a near-guarantee that at least one player with eligibility remaining will decide to play it out elsewhere. That’s just an acknowledgement of the situation at hand around college basketball.
Hugley holds the cards here. If the big man wants to continue his course with Pitt, enough hope remains for the future to justify a return. If he does not, things will rapidly become untenable, whether Pitt can afford to make a change or not.
The problem at Pitt has not been that it hasn’t had enough good players, it’s that it hasn’t kept enough good players, and if Capel wants to continue in his role, it’s one he has to fix now.