Capel will prevail on recruiting trail


Mackenzie Rodrigues | Contributing Editor

Men’s basketball head coach Jeff Capel has claimed three blue-chip recruits for the 2018 season.

By Stephen Thompson, Staff Writer

When Jeff Capel was announced as Pitt’s 16th men’s basketball coach this offseason, his aptitude as a recruiter was highlighted as one of his biggest strengths — especially appealing for a Panther squad facing an uphill battle to rebuild after going winless in the ACC.

Capel’s history of recruiting top-tier talent — like Blake Griffin at Oklahoma and Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson at Duke — gives reason to believe that Pitt’s rebuild will be quicker than previously expected. He’s been aggressive so far in his first recruiting cycle at Pitt, immediately pursuing elite talent and claiming three nationally touted recruits — Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney — for the 2018 class. They’ll join junior transfer Malik Ellison in a backcourt loaded with talent and explosive athleticism.

“I think you can see them playing together a lot,” Capel said of his first-year guards at a press conference Tuesday. “My hope is to have lineups where there are multiple ball handlers, where there is not just one. We have multiple guys who can initiate our offense from a defensive rebound that can push the break.”

Capel has cast an even wider net for next year’s class, seeking to take his recruiting to the next level. With an abundance of young guards, the focus will be to bolster the undermanned frontcourt.

That’s where Akok Akok — a 6-foot-10-inch, 190-pound power forward from Putnam, Conn. who holds a four-star rating from — comes in. Akok holds 21 Division I offers, but just recently released a top five of UConn, Syracuse, Providence, Georgetown and Pitt. Akok is just the type of athletic big that will pair well with the speedy facilitators handling the ball for Pitt, and his length makes him a capable shot blocker.

Akok also seems like the best chance for the Panthers to strike gold in this class. Akok took an official visit to Pitt last week, and unlike some of the other recruits on Capel’s radar, he does not have any true national title-contending programs on his list. That makes it easier for Pitt’s staff to sell the rebuild.

Akok’s visit was atypical, however, in that Capel and team captain Malik Ellison were not in Pittsburgh during that time — they were in Charlotte, N.C., for ACC media days. It is unlikely that Capel would leave campus during such a key official visit if he did not have confidence in his relationship with Akok.

Pitt has their eyes on two more elite forwards — Qudus Wahab and Kofi Cockburn. Wahab, who hails from Ashburn, Va., can patrol the paint at 6-feet-10-inches and 230 pounds. Wahab also has great footwork and ball-handling for his size that will allow him to spread the floor and play on the outside.

Wahab has set a top five that includes UConn, Virginia Tech and Georgetown, all of which he has visited, in addition to Syracuse and Pitt. The latter will host Wahab on consecutive weekends beginning Friday in Pittsburgh.

Cockburn may be the most imposing interior presence of all, also standing at 6-feet-10-inches but weighing 255 pounds. He’s a more traditional center who excels in the halfcourt and plays with his back to the basket. Cockburn’s skill set might not be as obvious a fit for coach Capel’s fast-paced system, but there’s no denying that his talent and size would be of extreme value to the Panthers.

The problem for Pitt is that it is competing with high-caliber programs. Headlining Cockburn’s list are preseason No. 1 Kansas, followed by fellow top-25 programs Tennessee, Auburn and Oregon, among others. These are programs that will compete for conference and national titles not only this year, but well into the next decade.

It seems unlikely that Pitt can compete with such programs, and recruiting success has been limited so far in Capel’s second class. But when it comes to recruiting, all it takes is one top talent or one good season to change the tide, so it’s encouraging that Capel is aiming so high.

Optimism about Pitt’s basketball program is at its highest level in almost a decade. The Panthers can continue to ride that momentum for a while, but they’re a long way from competing for conference and national titles. Pitt will need to show real progress in order to start having success with landing higher-star recruits.

Capel’s job really starts on Tuesday, when the Panthers host Youngstown State in their season opener. Winning cures all ills and while expectations are low, they are rapidly growing. Selling people — fans and recruits alike — on potential is much easier than selling based on results.

Results for this era of Pitt basketball are forthcoming — and in all likelihood they won’t be stellar, so Capel needs to take advantage of this window while he can. His resumé implies that he’s perfectly capable of landing the athletes necessary to rebuild a program, even if it may not happen over his first two seasons.

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