The first things Trey McGowens noticed were the bridges. He had never been to Pittsburgh before — but everyone in Pittsburgh already knew who he was.
Just 28 days after Jeff Capel was named the head coach of Pitt’s men’s basketball team in late March, he was about to officially sign McGowens, Pitt’s first top-100 recruit since 2013.
Capel said he isn’t sure what he said that resonated with McGowens, but it had to be good enough to get him to commit before he even stepped foot in Pittsburgh.
“I talked to [McGowens] about … the things I’m looking for as we rebuild this program and how I thought he embodied all of those things,” Capel said. “I’ve enjoyed watching him play, watching him compete.”
Capel also told McGowens what it would mean for him to be the first player to say “yes” to being a part of this process — a rebuild that will be the team’s effort as much as it will be Capel’s.
“It was about our vision of what we can do and doing it together,” Capel said. “And him being the first to say yes and what that means and what that will mean as we go forward as we get this thing going again, how that will always be something that will be with him for the rest of his life.”
Before he even talked to Capel, McGowens said he knew there was a possibility he would end up in blue and gold because he knew what Capel had done in the past.
“I knew the work he did at Duke, all the players he worked with and helped develop,” McGowens said. “And I just felt like it was the right place.”
But Capel didn’t consider McGowens to be his first recruit — Capel had to win over the team’s existing players before he could do anything else.
“Really the first group of people I thought I was recruiting when I got here was the current players,” Capel said. “Obviously there was a lot of frustration by the current players over the firing of the guy who recruited them and then coached them, and maybe some a little bit with the process.”
Nine players requested a transfer release — permission from Pitt to transfer and play basketball for a different college or university — when Kevin Stallings was fired March 8.
But after talking with Capel, six of those eight decided to stay at Pitt, including rising sophomore guard Khameron Davis.
“When coach Stallings first got fired, I kind of was sad initially and I didn’t think they gave him enough time with us,” Davis said in an interview. “I knew [Capel] was a good coach, but my opinion didn’t change yet. Obviously I wanted to meet him and I was open enough to meet him at first before making any big decisions, but initially my reaction was still sad about the last coach.”
When Davis sat down with Capel, Capel told Davis what he thought he was capable of on the court and what he thought they could accomplish together.
“He said he believed I could win defensive player of the year,” Davis said. “And that sticks with me to this day.”
According to Davis, Capel also told Davis he wanted to win immediately — and his strategy didn’t have much to do with strategies on the court.
“One thing that stood out was a lot of the times he was talking about this stuff that had nothing to do with basketball, or at least on the court,” Davis said. “A lot of things were we need to change the way the locker room is, we need to change the way we act around each other … that’s what interested me a lot because I believe in off-the-court balance helping on the court.”
Capel has since signed two more players to join McGowens in the incoming class — guard Xavier Johnson from Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia, who verbally committed to Pitt on April 28, and Pittsburgh’s own North Allegheny point guard Curtis Aiken, who verbally committed to Pitt May 3.
Their achievements as guards have earned them national ranks — Aikens is ranked 53rd in point guards and Johnson is ranked 19th in combo guards by 247Sports.
Regardless of their individual achievements and rankings, each of these players has a specific quality Capel wants his players to embody.
“Toughness,” Capel said. “When you look at the history of Pitt basketball, that’s the thing that always jumped out to me from afar … That was kind of the thing with the Pitt program. And we want to build it around guys that are tough.”