Column | It’s starting to look like Jeff Capel’s final season in Pittsburgh

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TPN File Photo

Head basketball coach Jeff Capel watches from the bench as a penalty call dashes the Panthers’ hopes to upset Louisville in January 2020.

By Kyle Saxon, Senior Staff Writer

When Pitt men’s basketball head coach Jeff Capel accepted his job in 2018, he was widely perceived to be a home-run hire. And for his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, he certainly looked the part — which makes his tenure’s sudden and rapid turn for the worse all the more surprising and disappointing.

Capel inherited a roster that finished the 2017-18 season with an 8-24 record and a ranking of  227th of 351 Division I programs in KenPom. To make matters worse, most of the promising players on that roster decided to transfer, leaving Capel with five scholarships to fill in just a few months.

Capel pulled together a first recruiting class that featured a promising trio of players –– Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney –– who all showed the potential to become program cornerstones.

The first year of the Capel era featured signature home wins over Louisville and Florida State, teams the Panthers never would have dreamed of beating just a year prior. While the team only won four conference games in his first season, this was a vast improvement from their winless record against conference opponents the year before he arrived.

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Most importantly, Pitt entered the 2019-20 season with a restored sense of hope and excitement. In just his first year with the Panthers, Capel attracted sell-out crowds, celebrities and high-profile alumni to the Petersen Events Center one year after its darkest season in history.

Pitt won six conference games in Capel’s second season and boasted a winning conference record at home. After a 1-8 finish to the season and the transfer of McGowens, some concerns arose about the state of the program. But nevertheless the excitement surrounding its future remained heading into 2020-21.

The following season featured the peak of Capel’s tenure –– a win against his alma mater, Duke. With the win, the Panthers improved to 8-2 and began to accumulate a resumé worthy of an NCAA tournament bid.

By the end of the season, the Panthers were 10-12 without a single member of Capel’s foundational class left on the roster. Pitt’s main beacon of hope, first team All-ACC forward Justin Champagnie, declared for the NBA Draft in the offseason.

Now, the Panthers sit at 2-6 with home losses to The Citadel and UMBC, and an entire conference schedule ahead of them. While sophomore guard Femi Odukale and center John Hugley have shown promise early in the season, Pitt has zero commitments in the 2022 class and seemingly no sense of future direction.

Capel has lost all of the excitement and hope that he initially built up at Pitt.

While the Panthers did not win many games in Capel’s first two seasons, they were not expected to. Capel showed undeniable progress, and gave reason to believe that with more time, he could lead Pitt back to its former glory.

What he had then, and has now lost, is patience from the Pitt Faithful.

In year four of a head coach’s tenure, a program should not be at square one of its development. Seemingly all of Capel’s progress has been reset by departures and decommitments. Whether he is fully culpable for those departures is up for debate, but it is abundantly clear that the rest of his roster was not strong enough to withstand them.

Even prior to losing those players, there’s reason to believe that Capel’s progress had stalled in year three. Champagnie had one of the greatest individual seasons in program history, and Pitt still failed to reach a .500 record, even in a down year. The midseason departures of Toney and Johnson raised questions about Capel’s control of the locker room, and coupled with Pitt’s lack of success, 2021-22 appeared to be a prove-it year for Capel and his staff.

After losing senior guard Nike Sibande for the season and junior guard Ithiel Horton indefinitely, any expectation of a winning season in year four was largely out the window. The problem is the team is far worse than anyone expected, even after losing those players.

It appears Pitt’s on-court struggles have finally impacted recruiting. Following the loss to The Citadel, Capel lost his only commitment in the 2022 class and the presumed future of the program, four-star guard Judah Mintz. Not only are the Panthers shaping up for an abysmal season, but there are now zero recruits to look to as signs of a hopeful future.

Mintz’s decommitment finally broke many Panther fans’ patience. Now there is immense pressure on Capel to win games with a depleted roster and give some signs of hope that the program can turn things around. Thus far, the opposite has occurred.

Support from the fanbase is essential to the success of any program, and Capel is rapidly losing it. If the team continues to lose, supporters will continue to lose faith and interest. With the potential of a winning Pitt team seemingly years in the future, Capel is simply running out of time to prove himself and actualize his vision.

While continuity is important in college athletics, it is difficult to advocate for continuity with no clear signs of progress. If the fan base gives up on Capel, the athletic department’s hand may be forced.