Column | Capel deserves credit for instilling strong culture in men’s basketball


Kaycee Oriwg | Senior Staff Photographer

Jeff Capel is Pitt men’s basketball head coach.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Capel, who has coached Pitt men’s basketball team since 2018, was supposed to be the Panthers’ catalyst for a return to the national spotlight. “The Zoo Era” — a social media slogan meant to represent the fresh start Capel would bring — became the team’s rallying cry.

Viewed as a home run hire by many accounts, the hiring of Capel was thought to be just what the athletic department needed to revive a storied program that had lost its luster.

In a year where Capel has been without two of his best scorers for a majority of the season — one of whom won’t be returning — he got the most out of this group. He’s done so while beginning to establish an identity, one that can translate to winning in the coming years.

The Panthers’ fall from grace was an ugly one. A former No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in both 2009 and 2011 fell to rock bottom in under a decade, going 8-24 in the 2017-18 season under Kevin Stallings. It was always apparent that rebuilding the Panthers was going to be at least a years-long process. 

Upon arrival, the cupboard was bare. Capel inherited a roster riddled with Stallings’ leftovers and three of his own recruits. Despite a roster that was overmatched in virtually every ACC game, Pitt won two of its first four games in conference, including over Louisville and No. 11 Florida State. After a surprising 2-2 start in conference play, Pitt went on to lose 13 straight games and finished 3-15 in conference play.

That has been a common theme of Capel’s tenure up to this point. He pulled out various impressive wins during his time at Pitt, but his teams haven’t been able to find much of any consistency, and the mind-bogglingly bad losses overshadow good wins. 

That can largely be attributed to the revolving door of players in and out of the program. It’s hard to have an identity when your roster looks vastly different from season to season. So last offseason, Capel targeted players who weren’t just good basketball players, but players who would help establish a lasting culture. 

Senior guard Jamarius Burton and senior forward Mo Gueye have stepped in and done just that. Burton, a transfer from Texas Tech and Gueye, a graduate transfer from Stony Brook, have been great additions and are leading by example in all phases. 

“JB and Mo are arguably our two hardest workers,” Capel said. “They’re the guys that are gym rats.”

This isn’t just translating to the box score — while Burton and Gueye have been impressive on the floor, they are setting a standard with the way they go about their work. 

Sophomore forward John Hugley stepped up in the leadership department as well, citing how his role has changed in comparison to last season.

“Way different role than last year,” Hugley said. “The biggest thing is being that vocal leader.”

Gueye and Burton’s leadership and work ethic are shown every time they step on the court, and it has had an effect on those around them. No matter what the score is, they do not quit.

Since Capel and his staff arrived in 2018, they’ve always preached togetherness. It’s a word you’ll hear a lot when listening to him talk about what’s required to win. 

“I thought our guys were incredibly tough,” Capel said after Pitt’s win over Syracuse. “I thought we were together.”

That togetherness he preaches stands out more in this group than any other he has had at Pitt. They make a point to celebrate each other’s success, and it’s easy to tell how tightknit of a unit the Panthers are. His previous teams also didn’t have an identity, but this one does.

Pitt shot just 21% in the first half against Syracuse last week. But it didn’t let its struggles on one end affect the other — it stayed locked in and was connected on defense, keeping the game within four at half. In the second half, Pitt shot 50% from the floor and made six timely threes, and took control of the game. That game was a showcase of what Capel thinks the Panther recipe for success is this year — slow the game down, grind it out and win ugly.

“We have to understand who we are,” Capel said in December. “That’s the main thing. We have to win ugly. We have to bring teams to the mud.”

The Panthers have embodied that quote in all three of their ACC wins to date. They understand their limitations as a team, and to make up for it, want to make opponents work hard for everything on the offensive end and that requires staying connected and playing together. The Panthers aren’t just saying that, they’re doing it.

Everybody has bought into that. Even senior guard Nike Sibande, who was expected to play a big role on the Panthers’ offense this year but tore his ACL in a scrimmage against Gannon prior to the season. 

“I’m going to be back here,” Sibande said. “Riding with Capel, man.”

Sibande didn’t have to announce anything midseason. He also could’ve chosen to go elsewhere as a grad transfer in the offseason. He instead chose to stay at Pitt. That’s a testament to the positive culture that Capel has built and the growing bond between this group.

“We are trying to impress upon them and get them to truly understand how hard it is to win,” Capel said. “We, as a program, haven’t won consistently in a while, and it’s hard. And so we are trying to create the habits that are necessary.”