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Michalowski: Capel’s Culture Reaches New Heights as Pitt’s Generations Converge



WHEELING, W. Va. — It was late Tuesday night, and “Best Virginia” — West Virginia’s alumni team — had just wrapped up a first-round victory in front of thousands of raucous Mountaineer fans in Wesbanco Arena.

Pitt fans were now trickling into the stadium as 9 p.m. neared, itching to get a chance to see their own alumni team, “Zoo Crew,” play. With a win on Tuesday, the former Panthers would take on their bitter rivals, the top-seeded Best Virginia squad, on Thursday. For the Pitt fans in attendance, the anticipation was high.

Inside the stadium, one very recognizable group of 20+ Zoo Crew fans walked across the court 19 minutes before tip-off.

A few kids — who happen to be the next generation of Capels — ran out in front of the group, reserving their front-row seats for the upcoming matchup. Behind them, 10+ current Pitt basketball players strolled in. All of the freshmen were there, including redshirt freshman Dior Johnson. The Diaz-Graham twins, including a booted-up Jorge, checked in as well. Both new transfers, Ishmael Leggett and Zack Austin, also found their seats. As did Blake Hinson, William Jeffress, and the rest of the team (other than Federiko Federiko, who is in Finland with the National Team).

Several support staffers and managers rolled in with the players. To bring up the rear, Pitt associate head coach Milan Brown spoke with head coach Jeff Capel at half court as the two approached their seats for the night.

The Panthers weren’t necessarily welcomed to Wheeling. Even during this procession into the stadium to watch their alumni compete on a Tuesday night in the middle of the summer, the place echoed with boos.

However, boos and heckles aside, this night represented the culmination of a week which the leaders of Pitt basketball should feel proud of.

Throughout the past week, the Zoo Crew guys showed up in Oakland to practice. Some of the most well-known talent to ever grace the court in the Petersen Events Center returned home with a new goal on their minds: win $1 million together.

Legends of the late 2000s Pitt teams such as LeVance Fields, Sam Young, and Gilbert Brown gathered for practice, as did recent graduates Nelly Cummings and Greg Elliott. The generations meshed under the leadership of another former Panther star, DeJuan Blair, who went straight to Capel for help as he began his coaching career where his playing career once blossomed.

“I’ve got Coach Capel,” Blair said. “He’s been a great help for me. It’s been cool to be able to talk to him about coaching.”

After a few days of practice, the Panthers of past and present gathered for their annual alumni game — a matchup behind closed doors in which the old and the new go head-to-head. Members of the alumni group wore blue — and were made up of the Zoo Crew team plus Justin Champagnie, who is currently on the Boston Celtics. Members of the current Pitt squad donned gold.

Once the alumni game wrapped up on Saturday, neither side went their separate ways. The preparation and the bonding continued. The plan was for Pitt’s current squad to stick by Zoo Crew and support the alumni group in Wheeling, sitting court-side.

And that’s exactly what the new group did on Tuesday night. Throughout Zoo Crew’s performance against Herd That, a team full of Marshall alumni, the current Pitt team, along with Capel, his family, and his staff, gathered on the baseline in unison with the vets playing for Zoo Crew.

The current Panthers were ecstatic for each made basket and defensive stop by their older comrades, jumping out of their seats to celebrate the moves they had seen on tape and recently in practice come to fruition in game-action (i.e. Sam Young’s lethal pump fake — yes, it still works every time).

Zoo Crew battled as hard as it could behind the cheers and chants of the Pitt players on the baseline, but eventually, the loss was inevitable. Despite 21 points from Jamel Artis and 20 from Young, Herd That had never given up the lead and was in position to close out the victory with its star on the free-throw line. Rob Gray then sank each of his three free throws to increase his scoring total to 27 on the night and to clinch the victory for the Marshall squad.

Despite the final score of Tuesday night’s game, the Pitt basketball program won this past week.

The culture within the program is in a unique position: it feels fresh, but at the same time, it’s deeply rooted in the program’s history. The current players respect the former players. The former players enjoy teaching the current ones. They all relish competing against one another to improve.

“I think that it’s an amazing feeling to blend eras,” Brown said after the 86-71 loss. “With Jamel, Sam, myself, extended all the way through Talib [Zanna], connecting with each other and just coming back and reminiscing over good times. It’s a great thing. Then, to be able to compete, and build that relationship with the current players. I think it’s a great situation, this past week, what we did for the team, for the program, for the University of Pittsburgh.”

The 2023-24 team still has a lot of unanswered questions from an outside point of view. The team has four incoming freshmen (five if you include Johnson), two transfers, a vet returning from an injury, and a whole lot of international talent down low.

But despite all of the new faces, lineups, and personalities, Pitt basketball’s brick-by-brick culture appears to be as strong as ever heading into year six of the Capel era.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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