When Pitt head basketball coach Jeff Capel was hired in March 2018, he brought with him a resumé that included, among other things, the ability to recruit top-tier players at a high level. Capel immediately flashed his recruiting chops, snagging two players ranked in the national top 150 — Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney — and finding an overlooked talent in Xavier Johnson, who was ranked No. 232 nationally but went on to become Pitt’s most productive player.
With that freshman trio leading the way, Capel’s Panthers improved upon 2017’s disastrous season (8-24 overall, 0-18 ACC ) by notching a 14-19 overall and 3-15 ACC record, impressively taking down NCAA Tournament teams like Florida State, Louisville and St. Louis along the way. Though Pitt may have underachieved after a hot start to the season, at one point losing 13 straight ACC games, the consensus was that Capel could build upon this momentum in the offseason and land a big-time recruit or two for the class of 2019.
But fast forward to last Tuesday, when four-star junior college transfer Khadim Sy chose Ole Miss over finalists Pitt and East Carolina, and it’s beginning to look like Pitt’s 2019 recruiting class will be defined more by who it lost out on than who it gained.
The 6-foot-10, 245-pound Sy was considered one of the most athletic big men in the country, with a diverse skill set and the ability to defend the rim, score inside and stretch the floor if need be. After starting his college career at Virginia Tech, Sy transferred to Daytona State for his sophomore season in 2018, where he averaged 16.8 points and 9.8 rebounds on 55.1% shooting from the field and 32% from 3-point range.
After hosting Sy on campus and reportedly developing a good rapport with him, it appeared Pitt finally had the inside track on recruiting a much-needed big man. Finding a quality option in the frontcourt has been the Panthers’ number one recruiting priority after centers Terrell Brown and Kene Chukwuka combined to average 9.6 points and eight rebounds last season.
To add more fuel to the fire, Pitt had already struck out on big men Kofi Cockburn, Akok Akok, Qudus Wahab and Ibrahima Diallo. Many of these highly touted recruits publicly released a final list of schools which included Pitt, only to spurn the Panthers and choose another school in the end. The 7-foot-tall Diallo was the latest to break Pitt’s heart, hyping up a decision between Ohio State and Pitt only to chose the former. But after losing so many 50-50 recruiting battles, Panther fans still maintained hope in getting the next commitment. If you flip a coin enough, you’re bound to get a different result eventually.
You can’t blame Pitt basketball fans for being optimistic about the chances of landing Sy. Sure, Pitt’s program has fallen from glory in recent years, but it at least boasts a rich history, an electric student section and the opportunity to play in the NCAA’s premier basketball conference. Toss in a head coach with NBA ties and an up-and-coming backcourt duo, and Pitt seemed like the obvious choice over East Carolina and Ole Miss. East Carolina plays in a minor conference and has made the NCAA Tournament just twice in its history, while Ole Miss is typically a middling team in the SEC with only one Sweet 16 appearance ever.
One of the most iconic rappers of all time once repped Capel’s college jersey. Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis, meanwhile, shares the same name as a Muppet.
Yet in the end, Capel and Pitt were once again left on the outside looking in. So what gives? Is Capel actually not the elite recruiter he was thought to be or did Pitt fans just set their expectations a little too high?
The answer likely lies somewhere in between. Recruiting is a tricky (and, in the worst cases, shady) business, so it’s often puzzling and frustrating for fans who feel like their team is inexplicably losing out. There has to be some reasonable explanation for these high-level recruits to pass on Pitt.
Some of the accountability lies with Capel and his staff, to be sure. But it’s unrealistic to expect any new staff to come in and start piling up top-100 prospects. Recruiting centers on continuity and trust — the earlier you can establish a relationship with the athlete, the likelier you are to land him. Pitt’s current staff has only existed for one season, meaning Pitt is at a natural disadvantage against coaches who have been courting this year’s incoming class since they were underclassmen in high school.
It’s also easier for coaches to sell results rather than visions for the future. Success breeds success, and Pitt hasn’t had a lot to build off of in recent years. Pitt basketball may be on the rise, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s won just three conference games over the past two seasons. Capel can try to sell his vision to potential recruits, enticing them with the opportunity to play in front of Jay-Z or to restore Pitt basketball to a perennial tournament team once more. But the recent losses alone are probably enough to make any potential recruit think twice, especially when another team with concrete results in the win column is offering.
And although Capel has missed out on his most ambitious attempts for the 2019 class, he’s still secured a formidable group of recruits including forwards Karim Coulibaly, Gerald Drumgoole and Justin Champagnie, as well as sharpshooting junior college transfer Ryan Murphy. 247sports.com currently has this group ranked as the ninth best in the ACC. That’s good because it drastically outperforms Pitt’s 14th-place finish in the ACC standings last season, but slightly worrisome because it’s worse than Capel’s first recruiting class, which ranked fifth in the conference.
So yes, it’s natural for Pitt fans to feel like the girl who got rejected by her dream prom date — five different times — and is now looking in the mirror wondering whether she’s pretty enough. My advice would be to relax. The Panthers need to win more games before they can land top recruits, and Pitt should naturally take another step forward by winning more games this year. Recruiting rankings in general are overrated — after the top 50 or so most elite prospects, the rest is essentially a crapshoot. There’s plenty of overlooked talent, as Johnson proved last year, plus players who naturally develop at the next level.
Capel and his staff have certainly earned the patience of fans for now, but if Pitt continuously fails to win games and land big names over the next few years, it may be time to press the panic button.