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Brothers, Leaders, and Tournament Makers: Close-Knit Relationships Driving the 2022-23 Panthers



Federiko Federiko and Blake Hinson before Pitt's ACC Tournament game vs. Georgia Tech in Greensboro, N.C. on March 8, 2023. (Mitchell Northam / Pittsburgh Sports Now)

DAYTON, Ohio – The 2022-23 Pitt Panthers are family to one another. It might sound cliche and overexaggerated, but the bonds formed throughout the long season have prepared the Panthers for March. 

An older and experienced team, Pitt finished the year 22-11 overall and 14-6 in ACC play, putting the Panthers back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years. The culture and comradery created this season has largely impacted the program’s success. 

“I think it’s huge,” head coach Jeff Capel said. “The really good teams that I’ve been a part of throughout my career, whether it was as a player, as a head coach, an assistant coach, the one thing that’s been common in all of those really good teams is that they like each other. It’s their relationships off the court.”

Pitt faces Mississippi State Tuesday Capel expressed the importance of sticking together during the grind of a long season and embracing their teammate’s personalities, molding their relationships into one bigger than basketball.

“I think the more you know your teammates and the more you genuinely care about them — and I think the only way you can really care about someone is to get to know them — that goes a long way,” Capel said. “These seasons are long. You’re around each other a lot. If you don’t get along and you don’t like each other, it makes it miserable. It’s been great for us this year just to watch these relationships happen, to watch how these guys genuinely care about each other.”

Players including Nelly Cummings, Jamarius Burton, Greg Elliott, and Nike Sibande know this is it. One final ride to make their mark on the college basketball landscape and take Pitt deep into the tournament for the first time since 2009 (Elite Eight). 

“We all are brothers. We look at each other like brothers,” Sibande said. “We have each other’s back on and off the court. That’s one thing about this team I really love. We all are close and cool with one another.”

Franklin Regional grad Aidan Fisch shifted from being a manager to the active roster his final three years at Pitt and has been around the Panthers, growing up in Pittsburgh, for quite some time. He understands and appreciates the relationships necessary to bring Pitt basketball back to the tournament and the feeling it brings to the city.

“Veteran leadership all around,” Aidan Fisch said. “Just guys who have been to the Tournament. They know what it takes. That’s really big for everyone. Using that experience to move into March. That’s been the focus since the beginning of the reason. To make that a reality has been huge for the team.

“It’s a huge deal for the city and everyone around. Growing up here I know that Pittsburgh loves a winner. You’ve seen it with the Pirates, Penguins, and Steelers. When they’re not so good, the fan base isn’t as into it, but when they’re good, the city will rally around them. Being back for the first time in [seven years] is a huge deal.”

Capel also noted the closeness of the group allows for hard things to be said to one another. The Panthers will strive for a unified attack and approach on Tuesday against Mississippi State to make their way back to Greensboro where Iowa State awaits the winner in the Round of 64.

“I’ve walked in the locker room at halftime, and I’ve heard them getting on each other,” Capel said. “And one of the cool things about it is that it’s done with love, so it’s not like the guy is striking back at him or takes it personally or whatever. You know he cares about you, so you know it’s coming from a great place.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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