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Opinion

Saunders: Jeff Capel’s Future with Pitt Hinges on One Thing, and It’s How We Got Here in the First Place

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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.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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Eli
Eli
2 months ago

He still underachieves with the players he has, though. They lost to the Citadel by 15 points! UMBC by 10! They just got blown out by a BC team that also doesn’t have enough talent.

Pittband
Pittband
2 months ago
Reply to  Eli

Mo Gueye was challenged to correct the defensive shortcomings of the guards. Big job for one Gueye. I wish him the best. BC’s guards drove the paint at will when we won earlier in the season. School supporters (recruiters) are whispering sweet nothings into Hughley’s ear. Seeing all the success of the transfers, it’s going to be a tough recruiting job keeping him. Between the damage KS and X did, the result should have been expected. I think Capel’s biggest mistake (and Jamie’s) was forcing man to man on a group more suitable to Syracuse’s defense.

Clark Martineau
Clark Martineau
2 months ago
Reply to  Pittband

You think?! Capel saved his college career.
I think Hugley stays

Joe
Joe
2 months ago

Pretend you’re an aspiring hs bb player. You read all the negativity that this column and others on PSN write. (Especially George’s) Would you want to come here? Do you not think that other coaches are not aware of this and are using it against PITT? And if you are a possible candidate to replace Capel (there could easily be some in town for the regionals) would you want to come into your media mess?

Maz.1960
Maz.1960
2 months ago
Reply to  Joe

In response to Joe … from what I am reading we should expect the writers on Pittsburgh sports now to cheerlead and only report positives about the program and not provide accurate information. What in this article is not factual? Coaching in 2022 is different than coaching in 1972 or 2002. If you don’t learn to adapt and make the proper adjustments for a new landscape then you get left behind. It is the coaches responsibility to learn and adapt. It is the writers responsibility to accurately provide us with information

Young
Young
2 months ago
Reply to  Joe

Is there other site that has more news about Pitt sports? It seems https://www.cardiachill.com/ carries less news than before, probably a sign of losing interest or nothing to report. Is there other site?

Bob Cardy
Bob Cardy
2 months ago

I still want Capel to succeed, but it’s harder to see that happening. The lone bright spot is Sibande returns next year. On the negative, Jeffress has not developed, the offensive plan seems to be pass the ball around the 3 point arc until the shot clock winds down and then take a desperation shot. IT was seen as a savior when he returned, but on a good team, he would be 3rd or 4th off the bench at best. The inability to recruit players who can shoot the ball is very concerning. Capel has had success, but he was… Read more »

Krackerjack Kid
Krackerjack Kid
2 months ago

“We have to get better players.”

Who’s job is that Jeff?

Young
Young
2 months ago

Capel and staff,

  • can they develop players? have we seen players developed and gotten better as the season progress?
  • can they recruit?
  • can they keep players?
  • can they coach games?
  • if same team returns next year, are we all excited because they will all get better?
  • is there any new player coming in next year that excite us?
  • based on Capel’s work so far, do we expect great things in the next season?
Paul mcgrath
Paul mcgrath
2 months ago

I think the article is pretty good. Had hughley not got suspended last year I think that team would have been a top 25 team that made the tournament and it’s a lot easier to keep kids happy when your winNing and making the tourney, This years team could have been really good especially in a bad ACC, Unfortunately that’s not how things worked out for us. I believe Jeff will be back next year and hopefully they can turn this around because I’m desperate for a good basketball team. When reading the comments I completely agree with the guy… Read more »

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