Panthers to welcome No. 7 Duke for Krzyzewski’s final ACC road game


AP Photo/Steve Helber

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, center, talks with guard Trevor Keels (1), left, and Theo John (12) during a game against the University of Virginia on Wednesday in Charlottesville, Virginia.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

Whether he likes it or not, Pitt head coach Jeff Capel will always be a “Duke guy” in the eyes of the public. His past career as a four-year starter at guard for the Blue Devils men’s basketball team and seven-year tenure as first assistant for head coach Mike Krzyzewski dominates the dead air of game broadcasts and serves as the foundation of his coaching resumé.

This is not without reason — Capel is as much a part of Duke basketball as Duke basketball is a part of him. He bookended his four-year career as a player for the Blue Devils with ACC titles in 1994 and 1997, is credited as the main recruiter of multiple one-and-done stars that have become synonymous with Duke and its dominance and won a national title in 2015 as a member of Krzyzewski’s staff.

Duke forward Joey Baker (13) shoots against Florida State guard Cam’Ron Fletcher (21) during a game on Saturday in Durham, North Carolina.
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

These facts about Capel were less important when he was a head coach at Oklahoma or VCU — good programs, but not naturally direct competitors of the Blue Devils. But the relationship with his alma mater became more complex after Capel took over the Pitt program in 2018.

By taking a job with an ACC rival, Capel was tacitly agreeing to have his relationship to the conference’s flagship basketball program referenced and dissected constantly whenever Pitt and Duke meet. And this season, ACC schedule-makers gave Pitt and Capel the honor of hosting Krzyzewski’s last conference road game, making Capel’s connections to Durham, North Carolina, even more pronounced.

The Blue Devils will roll into the Pete on Tuesday to play the last ACC road game of their head coach’s long and revered career. One of his mentees will stand on the opposite sideline, hoping to play spoiler in the penultimate game of Krzyzewski’s last lap around the conference.

The Panthers will enter the matchup against the ACC-leading Blue Devils having suffered two ugly losses at home — one a six-point loss to last-place Georgia Tech, the other a blowout at the hands of Miami. After winning three in a row from Feb. 9 to 16, the Panthers are beginning an all-too-familiar limp to the finish. Capel-led Pitt teams are 10-31 in the months of February and March combined, and Goliath stands between this year’s Panthers and an improved late-season record.

Pitt and Duke are both little more than a year removed from a 79-73 win for the Panthers at the Pete, one in which current Toronto Raptor Justin Champagnie rebounded the Blue Devils into oblivion and declared that “Pitt is back” after defeating the ACC’s bully.

But this year could not be more different. Now, Duke’s deeper, more talented and likely to enter this week ranked No. 1 overall after the AP Top 25’s top six all lost on Saturday. Pitt, meanwhile, has trended in the opposite direction and since struggled to stack wins. But as lopsided as the matchup appears on paper, the Panther star power in the frontcourt gives them a puncher’s chance.

The main attraction of Tuesday’s game will be the battle on the block between Pitt’s star sophomore forward John Hugley and one of the most complete front court players in the conference in Duke’s sophomore center, Mark Williams.

Duke center Mark Williams (15) struggles for the ball with Wake Forest forward Dallas Walton (13) during a game on Tuesday in Durham, North Carolina.
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Hugley, a versatile player who can draw fouls and score around the rim at a high level, will be challenged by Williams’ length and sharp basketball IQ. Williams is far and away the league’s best shot blocker with 85 rejections this season — 14 more than the ACC’s second-best total — and a contender for conference defender of the year honors. Hugley’s skill and conditioning will be tested when running up and down the floor against such a fundamentally sound big man.

Another one of Pitt’s stars — graduate forward Mouhamadou Gueye — will likely be tasked with defending first-year phenom Paolo Banchero, who averages the sixth-most points per game in the conference and boasts the second-best odds of becoming the NBA’s No. 1 overall pick in this spring’s draft. But Gueye’s status for Tuesday’s game is in question after he sprained his wrist in the first half of last Tuesday’s game against Miami. Gueye eventually returned, but Capel decided to rest the rangy forward for much of the second half.

Both Gueye and Hugley will need to avoid fouling against their talented counterparts in order for Pitt to compete with Duke.

The Panther backcourt will also need to bring focus and discipline in order to hold their own against the relentless and athletic Duke guards. Besides the scoring from redshirt junior Ithiel Horton and senior Jamarius Burton, they and sophomore point guard Femi Odukale will need to play with serenity and intelligence. Against the defensive pressure that is sure to come, Pitt cannot afford to turn the ball over 20 times like it did against the Hurricanes.

One thing working in the Panthers’ favor is their five days of rest, which come at an opportune time, according to Capel. He said after the Miami game that his team was “tired and banged up,” like many are around the country, and added that he welcomed the break. 

The Panthers are still jockeying for position in next week’s ACC Tournament, and will hope to end their regular season on an especially sweet note by upsetting the Blue Devils. Pitt and Duke will tip off at 8 p.m. on Tuesday night, with ACC Network slated to carry the broadcast.