Capel’s first year means improvement, not victory



Pitt basketball head coach Jeff Capel shouts instructions to his team during the first half of the men’s Big 12 basketball Tournament in 2011 when he was head coach at Oklahoma. (Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star/MCT)

By Cale Berger, Staff Writer

When Pitt hired Jeff Capel to be its next men’s basketball coach in March, it brought excitement to a program that has been plagued by mediocrity since Pitt’s last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016. After winning just four conference games over the last two years under former head coach Kevin Stallings, the Panther fan base seems to be re-energized with Capel’s hiring.

Athletic Director Heather Lyke embodied the general sentiment toward Capel with her comments at his introductory press conference in March.

“Early on, a wise friend of mine told me that you need five characteristics in hiring anyone — integrity, character, culture, work ethic and talent — in that order,” she said. “And we found those characteristics in Jeff.”

Capel’s coaching resumé — three NCAA Tournament appearances as head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University and Oklahoma, then the recruitment of 19 McDonald’s All-Americans as an assistant coach at Duke — speaks for itself and fans should absolutely be excited about the future of Pitt basketball. But they shouldn’t expect his inaugural Pitt team to take the college basketball world by storm. It’s important to keep in mind that this is a team comprised of first-years, graduate transfers and a cast of veterans who failed to win a single ACC game last season.

True, Capel has done an impressive job transforming Pitt’s disastrous recruiting class into the sixth-best class in the ACC, according to 247Sports. His impact on the program without even coaching a game is notable. Still, they are competing in the best conference in college basketball, with a roster that is largely not of his own design.

When Capel was hired he immediately began recruiting, bringing in combo guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens, the latter of whom was rated as a four-star recruit and the 10th best at his position in the nation by 247Sports. Assistant coach Milan Brown told The Pitt News that they, along with the other first-years on the roster, will have the opportunity to see ample court time in their first year on the team.

As the team’s most prized additions and heirs to the program, Johnson and McGowens will absolutely play. But Capel will need Pitt’s returning players to buy into his new system and show improvements from last season if the team seeks to make it out of the ACC basement.

Some of those returning members have already voiced their support for the new playing environment. Senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame hinted that the new staff is pushing the program in the right direction.

“Our coaching staff … is pushing us to new levels as a whole,” Wilson-Frame said. “And the whole program is reaching new heights … it’s just a higher level than I’ve seen since I’ve been here. I haven’t been here that long, but the whole culture is different.”

Wilson-Frame was the Panthers’ leading scorer last season, but his on-ball defense and offensive efficiency left much to be desired. Sophomore guard Khameron Davis was the team’s best perimeter defender last season, ranking second on the team in steals and blocks, but he only averaged four points per game. Starting guards Marcus Carr and Parker Stewart — who finished second and third in points scored, respectively — transferring out of the program certainly didn’t help matters either.

The Panthers’ new recruits will provide solid depth up top and on the wings, but the team will have some serious difficulty protecting the paint. There are only four truly big men on the roster, and only junior Kene Chukwuka and sophomore Terrell Brown played meaningful basketball for the Panthers last season.

Chukwuka provides hustle plays and infectious energy, but he isn’t a good rebounder or shot blocker. Brown was the Panthers’ leading shot blocker last season, but he lacks necessary physicality and is a poor rebounder in his own right, grabbing only 3.4 boards per game as a first-year. Both players struggle to score in the paint consistently, as Brown averaged just 4.4 points per game and Chukwuka 2.5.

With the steady supply of stellar big men whom the ACC seems to provide year in and year out, the Panthers are going to have a tough time not getting bullied in the post.

As a result of their size deficiencies, Pitt will likely have to play some three- or even four-guard lineups to capitalize on the team’s speed and athleticism. Junior guard Malik Ellison believes that Capel’s style will suit their skill set perfectly.

“His style is simple,” Ellison told The Pitt News in an interview. “It’s fast-paced.”

Like many of his freshman teammates, Ellison is an unknown for the Panthers. The St. John’s transfer sat out all of last season, and he is itching to get back on the court for his first taste of competitive basketball in nearly two years.

“Feels good [to be back],” he said. “As a basketball player, it’s hard not to be out there.”

The coaching staff certainly thinks highly of him as well, as Brown noted his leadership skills and willingness to mentor some of the younger players on the team.

“Malik has done a great job leading by his voice and his actions,” Brown said.

Ellison very well could be the most important player for the Panthers this season. His versatility at 6-foot-6 will allow him to potentially play and defend four different positions, which will prove quite useful to Capel and his staff if they do decide to play small.

Unfortunately, it remains a mystery what Ellison can do. He only averaged about seven points per game at St. John’s, and he was just an average shooter and creator. It seems like more of a sure bet that he will have his largest impact on the defense, likely matching up with the opponent’s best perimeter threat.

With all of the potential difficulties this team may encounter, fans may wonder exactly what they should want from Capel’s first season as coach.

The answer is relatively simple. Pitt fans should just expect growth and improvement. They should root for a team that is tough, competitive and getting better each week, crafting the foundation of a culture that will pay off down the road.

This team is not going to win the ACC and they are probably not going to make the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t mean fans can’t enjoy the 2018 season. Pitt will do well in non-conference play, as their only true test is West Virginia. They will likely win between seven and eight conference games and they may even have a few upsets up their sleeve — and that’s absolutely enough. We should interpret their victories as hope — signs that Pitt basketball will return to the glory days. It may not happen right away, but it will be worth the wait.