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Pitt Basketball

Ben Howland Sees Pitt’s Growth Under Capel, Challenge in Mississippi State



(Photos taken by James Santelli/Neon Tommy)

Jeff Capel and Ben Howland have some similarities when it comes to their coaching tenure at Pitt, with the biggest of those being the state of the program when they took it over.

Like it was when Capel took over in 2018, the Pitt program was a complete mess when Ben Howland was hired in 1999, taking over for Ralph Willard. Prior to “Gentle Ben’s” arrival, the Panthers had registered losing records in five of the previous six seasons and hadn’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament in six years.

Although Pitt struggled in his first season, going just 13-15, that would be the end of losing for the Panthers for a long time. Starting in Howland’s second year, Pitt had a winning record for the next sixteen seasons and the Panthers qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 13 of 16 years, missing postseason play just once.

While Jamie Dixon was there for the majority of the glory years for Pitt basketball, it was Howland who got the winning started, taking Pitt to the Sweet 16 in two of his four seasons (2002 and 2003) as head coach.

It’s taken Capel a bit longer to turn Pitt around, but his circumstances were a lot worse, with a 24-41 run under Kevin Stallings completely sucking the momentum out of the program. That aside, both coaches will be remembered as men who revived Pitt basketball when it was on life support.

Pitt makes its return to NCAA postseason play on Tuesday night as they take on Mississippi State in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio.

The Bulldogs are coached by Chris Jans. Jans is in his first season after taking over for Howland, who was left go last season, following seven seasons as Mississippi State’s head coach.

Monday, Pittsburgh Sports Now spoke with Howland, to get his perspective on both Pitt and Mississippi State. Considering he’s had the year off from coaching, the 65-year-old Howland has seen plenty of both of these teams both on television and in person.

“First of all, Coach Capel did a phenomenal job this year with this team,” said Howland. “I got the chance to come watch them practice in September and then they had our 2003 team back to honor us, so I saw the Miami game in person, which was a great game. I’ve also watched a lot of their games on television, and he’s done a masterful job with this group of players. They had the chance on the last game of the regular season to have a piece of the regular season ACC championship. They played a great game but came up just short.

“I’m just so excited for the Pitt fans and more importantly for their players. Coach Capel has put together not only a good group of basketball players but also a really good group of kids. I’m just so excited for Pitt basketball and believe that under Coach Capel they’ll be really good for years to come.”

In some circles, it’s just assumed that it’s easy to navigate the transfer portal to bring in talent but that’s obviously not the case. Having talent is one thing but that doesn’t always guarantee success. Howland praised Capel for not only evaluating good talent but also for bringing in good people, which can be almost as important.

“He and his staff did a tremendous job recruiting the transfer portal, which is so difficult to do,” said Howland. “The thing I really like about it is that Pitt has really, really good kids. The players Pitt brought in are high character, who are wonderful young men. [Jamarius] Burton just had a phenomenal year for them, and he was really, really a great leader. I love their kids. I thought they had toughness, togetherness, unselfishness, played the right way and I am really fired up for them.”

With all that being said, Howland knows that playing well in the regular season is one thing, but trying to win in the NCAA Tournament is something entirely different. Tuesday night will be difficult for Pitt, not only because of the spot that comes with March Madness but also because Mississippi State is a talented team and one he’s very familiar with.

“They have a tough opponent in Mississippi State,” Howland said. “Tolu Smith is a really good center that they have to matchup with. Shak Moore, Cam Matthews are really good, tough, undersized players. DJ Jeffries is a good player. Mississippi State has a good team.”

I asked Howland to put his coaching and analyst hat on to give us his keys to the game for Pitt.

“Mississippi State is very physical, very well coached, play great defense and will try and have the game at a tempo in which, like you said, something in the 60’s. It’s going to be a grind it out, hand to hand combat affair,” Howland said with a laugh. “Pitt is going to need to make their open shots when they get them. Pitt does a very good job offensively and are very unselfish as a team. In my opinion, the biggest key for Pitt is to try and beat them on the boards, because Mississippi State is a very good rebounding team. Mississippi State will be crashing the offensive glass and they block out really well defensively and work really hard to keep you off the glass.

“Limiting turnovers, Pitt getting to the foul line and rebounding the basketball will be huge keys for Pitt.”

The first time that Howland took Pitt to the NCAA Tournament, they were a No. 3 seed and beat Central Connecticut St, 71-54, in a game that took place at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh. The 2023 Panthers won’t be playing at home but will be in nearby Dayton, Ohio. This Pitt team will no doubt be excited, but Howland doesn’t believe they’ll be too amped up to play.

“These kids have been through a lot already this season,” Howland said. “They’ve been in huge games, played in a game for the conference championship. They have a veteran group and have tremendous leadership. The main thing for them will be to go out there and just try and do what you’ve been doing. Play as hard as you can and realize that it’s win or go home. They need to try and be at their best from the opening tip and get ready for a fight because I can tell you that it will be a fight. Mississippi State will be very physical and it’s going to be a very fun game for me to watch.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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