‘We have to win’: Pitt men’s basketball season in review


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Citadel sophomore forward Owen Spencer (23), left, and Pitt sophomore forward John Hugley (23) attempt to catch a rebound on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021 at the Petersen Events Center.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

When Pitt men’s basketball beat Duke on Jan. 18, 2021, star forward Justin Champagnie declared that “Pitt is back.”

Two and a half seasons into head coach Jeff Capel’s rebuild, and his Panthers were finally yielding results on the court. They were 8-2 overall, 4-1 in conference play and talk of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 filled the Pete. But in the 43 games that Pitt has played since, they’re 13-30.

As the 2022 men’s NCAA Tournament begins in earnest this week, the Panthers will once again watch it from home. Their postseason drought has spanned six years and two head coaches, with little hope that it will come to an end anytime soon. After completing his fourth losing season in as many years, Capel has his back against the wall.

When the Panthers lured him away in spring 2018 from the top assistant coaching job at Duke, Pitt charged Capel with rebuilding a program that he said had been gutted of talent and support. He said not many people knew how deep the disarray ran.

“When I got here, it was a mess,” Capel said following an ACC Tournament loss to Boston College on March 8. “And I didn’t know how bad it was. I don’t think the people inside of the program knew how bad it was.”

Capel’s work has yielded some flashes of hope during his four years in Pittsburgh, but not nearly enough to satisfy a proud fan base or himself, the head coach said. He thinks the program has improved under his leadership, just not to the degree he had imagined.

“I think where we are today, from the first day I took over, is significantly better,” Capel said. “Now, has it improved the way that I thought it would after four years? No. Absolutely not. There’s no one more frustrated with that than me, and I take responsibility for it. But it’s certainly in a better place than when I first got here.”

While the Panthers are clearly better now than they were during the infamous 0-18 season of 2018, 2021 started with little promise and ended with even less. On the court, the reasons why this team finished 10 games under .500 are plain.

They closed 2022 standing 161st in adjusted defensive efficiency and 249th in adjusted offensive efficiency. They defended 3-pointers as poorly as anyone in America — 322nd in opponent 3-point percentage — and didn’t fare much better when shooting triples themselves — 31.4%, good for 281st nationally. Their subpar turnover rates on both ends also did not crack the top-250 of Division I.

Their game plan was abstract at times — “winning ugly,” as players and coaches called it. The strategy involved dragging opponents down into an ugly game with the hope that chaos would undermine whatever advantages in chemistry and talent they had.

It worked, to some degree. The Panthers looked capable of competing during short stretches, and wins over St. John’s, Florida State, North Carolina and others breathed life into a team desperate for it.

Sophomore center John Hugley was playing at an All-ACC level, and graduate forward Mouhamadou Gueye overcame a slow start with the elite defensive pedigree that made him an attractive transfer candidate materializing on top of a wide array of offensive skills. Senior guard Jamarius Burton began to hit clutch shots with regularity, and the team played cohesively. 

There were reasons for hope, but like it has during every year of Capel’s tenure thus far, the optimism built slowly and painstakingly faded with time.

Time after time, the program has underdelivered and time is running out for the current staff to live up to the aspirations that they set out for themselves. Capel-led Pitt teams are 10-33 in February and March, a damning indictment of how his teams have failed to follow through when it matters most.

Capel will return to coach the Panthers next season — that much is clear. Despite the subpar results, athletic director Heather Lyke said she has faith in Capel. She quashed rumors of his firing in a statement released late last Friday.

“We are committed to Jeff Capel as our head coach and leader of our team,” Lyke said. “I am confident Jeff will continue to assess and evaluate every aspect of our program and work tirelessly to continue building it the right way.”

But that was never really in doubt, given recent reports about the cost of buying out Capel’s contract. Pittsburgh Sports Now reported last month that buying out the remainder of his seven-year contract signed just 14 games into his tenure would have cost Pitt $15 million and Seth Davis from The Athletic reported that the figure is closer to $17 million. Either way, it’s not cheap and that fact alone all but promised that Capel would get one more year to right the ship.

He’ll lose some key pieces from this year’s team. Gueye has exhausted his eligibility, senior guard Onyebuchi Ezeakudo is moving on from basketball to pursue a career in orthopedic surgery and sophomore forward Noah Collier entered the transfer portal on Tuesday.  

But for all that’s working against Capel, the current roster still has some valuable experience and talent. Hugley, an All-ACC Honorable Mention honoree, headlines the remaining group, with upperclassmen guards Burton, Ithiel Horton and Femi Odukale, who all played heavy minutes down the stretch of this past season, also eligible to return. And senior guard Nike Sibande, a prolific transfer scorer, said in January he’ll exercise his final year of eligibility to play for the Panthers, after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

Still, Pitt’s options to fill those open scholarships are becoming increasingly more limited. Just six of 247Sports’ top-100 players in the 2022 class are uncommitted and Pitt has just one verbal commitment from a high school player — Marlon Barnes, a three-star guard who won’t arrive until 2023. Capel knows he will have to lean on the transfer portal to recoup whatever additional personnel losses the program might incur this year.

To make Pitt a power again, Capel said he needs time and patience. He likened the work of growing a program to running a vineyard, saying it takes careful cultivation and the right environment. But with four consecutive losing seasons under his belt, and few reinforcements currently on the way, there’s little room for error anymore. Still, the need to win immediately is as present as ever.

“We have to win,” Capel said. “We’re going to keep trying to build this. I said when I got here — ‘brick by brick.’ You got to throw some bad bricks away. I got to keep adding good bricks. Hopefully we can get to building a good foundation and we can get this thing going in the right direction.”