When Jeff Capel took over the Pitt Panthers basketball program in 2018, the blue and gold had been sitting as close to rock bottom as humanly possible. Patience to rebuild the program was not only a virtue, but a requirement.
Capel made a huge splash bringing in Xavier Johnson, Au’Diese Toney, and Trey McGowens to the program and capturing one of the program’s best recruiting classes since the Jamie Dixon days. Growing pains were imminent for that season but there was again hope around a team that went winless in ACC-play just one season before under Kevin Stallings.
Capel’s hire brought excitement alone due to his renowned recruiting skills in being a big part of getting players to come to the University of Duke, where he was an assistant coach under Mike Kryzewski.
Four years into the rebuild, the results still have yet to really come for Jeff Capel’s Panthers. All of McGowens, Johnson, and Toney transferred out of the program before completing their college careers. Justin Champagnie ended up being a very good player for Capel but left early for the NBA which hindered Pitt’s progress but who would Capel be for standing in the way of that?
Capel’s debut squad in Pittsburgh got out to a 2-2 start in conference play before losing 13 straight and then inexplicably took down Boston College in the first round of the ACC Tournament before bowing out at the hands of Syracuse.
The following three seasons have seen the Panthers win exactly six conference games each year, a number they’d surely love to surpass in this upcoming campaign.
Which brings me to my next point: The roster Capel is building for this season is a bit more talented than the one he had last season. Sure, the Panthers picked up six ACC victories yet again but the ACC in general had a down year.
Capel’s recruiting prowess brought him Dior Johnson, a five-star guard from California, who ranked top-50 nationally in this season’s recruiting class. Johnson should immediately fill one of the starting guard spots alongside either Nelly Cummings, a transfer from Colgate, do-it-all Jamarius Burton who returns from last season’s squad, or Nike Sibande, an explosive player returning from an ACL injury last season.
Junior John Hugley, a top-100 four-star recruit in his 2020 class, returns to help the Panthers down low alongside Blake Hinson, an injury transfer from Ole Miss.
Capel also did good bringing in the Diaz-Graham twins, Jorge and Guillermo, for some extra depth this season. Greg Elliott and William Jeffress figure to play a role for Capel off the bench as well.
The ACC isn’t a conference the Panthers can expect to run roughshod over. Hugley has the potential to turn into a real star for the Panthers but they still won’t be getting enough out of him to carry them over the likes of North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, and Miami.
Now, in year five, the Panthers must pull together a season above .500, something that hasn’t yet been done under Capel. Winning more than six conference games would do that. Instead of losing close games like they did much of last season, it’s time for those close losses to turn into wins on more occasions than not. No more marginal improvements.
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Yes, it is hard to get continuity inside a team if they continue to transfer out after one rough season but winning could cure that. The Capel faces have on this roster heading into year number five are unrecognizable from merely two seasons ago. The time to start winning more is now.
The once proud Panthers program presented an arena in the Petersen Events Center that used to be one of the most feared places in college basketball. The team playing on that hardwood typically ranked among the nation’s top-15 teams on a yearly basis. Now, you’re hard pressed to find even 100 students sitting in the student section unless the blue bloods or Syracuse are in town.
Currently the 16th-highest paid coach in the nation, Jeff Capel’s honeymoon phase has worn off. Certainly getting kids to come to the University of Pittsburgh doesn’t have the same allure that it used to. It definitely doesn’t sell as easily as going to Duke. But the time for results is now. Morale victories are no longer acceptable. Notching wins in the win column must become the new standard or else the Pitt Panthers could find themselves in yet another head coaching search.
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