Vukovcan: Patience and Loyalty Has Given Pitt Basketball the Chance to Stay Relevant
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for Jeff Capel since he was hired as Pitt’s head coach on March 27, 2018.
The hire of Capel by Heather Lyke was universally praised, and it was just assumed that Pitt basketball would return or exceed the level that Jamie Dixon had them at before it crumbled and hit rock bottom during the Kevin Stallings era.
With Capel’s reputation as an ace recruiter and talent evaluator under former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, along with his recruiting ties around the country and his previous experience at VCU and Oklahoma, it appeared to be a marriage made in heaven.
However, like in most marriages, things aren’t always perfect. It takes time to smooth out some rough edges and work on problems.
After four seasons of struggles, it looked as though Capel and Pitt could be heading toward a divorce. Records of 14-19, 16-17, 10-12 and 11-21 made Capel and his staff the target of criticism from Panther fans but fortunately, Lyke and the Pitt administration didn’t share the same opinion.
Despite the dismal results and no apparent light at the end of the tunnel, Lyke stuck with her decision and belief that Capel was the right man for this job.
As we’ve witnessed this season, that was the right decision and it was highlighted on Monday with Capel being named the ACC Men’s Basketball Coach of the Year.
Pitt’s been able to have so much success this season and something that should encourage the fan base for the future is something that people started to question about Capel — his ability to recruit and properly develop talent.
When a team is struggling as badly as Pitt’s been, it’s hard to convince people that share a different opinion. Although it wasn’t true and has never been true, the overwhelming opinion was that Capel was overrated as a recruiter and only had success at Duke because of the Duke brand and the fact that he was sitting alongside Coach K.
As we’re finding out, that’s not the case and the real problem was the mix of kids Capel brought to Pitt. Not saying they were bad people, but they were just personalities and egos that couldn’t co-exist. That happens at most college programs, which is one of the reasons the transfer portal is filled every offseason.
In his first two years, Capel signed players like Au’Diese Toney, Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, Justin Champagnie, John Hugley and Femi Odukale and each of those players has shown during their time at Pitt, and also at the programs they’ve transferred to, that they are productive players.
However, the mix of Toney, Johnson, McGowens and Champagnie wasn’t going to work at Pitt, which is the reason for three of them transferring. Blame Capel if you want for them not being able to play in harmony, but his on-court talent evaluation was correct.
After being forced to hit the reset button and gut his roster, Capel had to start over and essentially bring in a whole new roster.
It seemed like a near-impossible task to try and add the volume of players that were needed but also to recruit enough talented players to a program that was at rock bottom. Despite getting the opportunity to play in the ACC, who would want to become a part of this mess?
As we’ve watched this season, Capel was able to accomplish this daunting task and it came down to his eye for talent and his ability to develop it.
At the time of their signing with Pitt, neither Nike Sibande, Jamarius Burton, Blake Hinson, Greg Elliott, Nelly Cummings nor Federiko Federiko were household names and certainly weren’t getting their phones blown up by major college programs.
Hinson hadn’t played basketball in two years, Burton never found a role in his previous two stops at Texas Tech and Wichita State, Elliott averaged just five points per game in his time at Marquette and Federiko was viewed as a long-term project at best.
Thanks to the opportunity, the system, the environment and the coaching they received this season at Pitt, all of those players excelled and accomplished things individually that not many thought possible.
Three of those players excelled and developed in a big-time manner as Burton was named to ACC first-team, Hinson to the ACC second-team and Sibande, who accepted his role all season, won ACC Sixth Man of the Year.
That’s a major feather in the cap for Capel and something that will no doubt be used in recruiting the transfer portal this offseason.
I’d have to imagine that Capel being the ACC Coach of the Year is something that will be mentioned a few times as the Panthers look to build upon this season as they try to sign talent to their recruiting Classes of 2024 and 2025.
Although Burton, Cummings, Elliott and Sibande will be moving on after the season, the 2023-24 roster will be filled with a bunch of talents such as Hinson, Federiko, the Diaz-Graham twins, Dior Johnson, John Hugley (maybe) and incoming freshmen such as four-star guards Jaland Lowe and Carlton Carrington.
A year ago at this time, the conversation surrounding Pitt basketball was mainly Jeff Capel’s buyout, now it all deals with the upcoming ACC Tournament and if Pitt will qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Pitt basketball is back because of Capel and the patience and belief that Lyke had in him.
To reference a common saying from my friend and major Pitt supporter Charlie, “Winning Is Fun” and it’s the same when it comes to this 2022-23 Panthers basketball team.
The turnaround with Pitt basketball has been amazing. Capel certainly earned his COY award. Kudos to him.
All that said, let’s pump the brakes just a bit before declaring victory. Capel has had 1 winning season in 5. Next year will tell us quite a bit about whether this is a true turnaround or a one year head fake.
Talk about grading on a curve
ACC coach of the Year. Did you say congratulations?