Column | Jeff Capel’s portal to a winning 2022-23 season


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

While athletic director Heather Lyke has repeatedly affirmed her support for the Pitt men’s basketball program and its head coach, make no mistake — the 2022-23 season is make-or-break for Jeff Capel.

The Panthers ended their disappointing 2021-22 campaign on a five-game losing streak, and fell to a final record of 11-21 with a 20-point loss at the hands of Boston College in the ACC Tournament. Since that loss, seven Pitt players have entered the transfer portal, leaving just five scholarship players on Pitt’s active roster.

From these facts alone, the outlook for next season appears grim to the outside eye. But with the landscape of college basketball constantly changing, and the NCAA transfer portal emerging as a main catalyst for that change, there is a legitimate path to a winning season for the Panthers as soon as next year.

First, it is essential to note that while Pitt will only return five scholarship players, this group includes the three most talented players in the program. Star sophomore big man John Hugley earned All-ACC honorable mention honors this year. He will be joined by super-senior guards Jamarius Burton and Nike Sibande, both of whom eclipsed 1,000 total points in their respective college careers.

While neither have officially confirmed anything, sophomore forward William Jeffress and first-year guard Nate Santos currently round out the group of projected returners. While Capel undeniably retained a talented foundation for 2022-23, he still entered the offseason with less than half of a full roster.

Consistently abysmal offensive performances plagued Pitt’s season, as the Panthers ranked in the bottom three teams of the ACC in points per game and field goal, 3-point and free throw shooting. Capel clearly needed to reinvent the team’s offensive identity and, at the conclusion of this past season, he quickly made the top priority clear –– finding his point guard.

Enter Nelly Cummings.

The 6-foot guard from Colgate entered the transfer portal shortly after his season ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and the Pitt staff immediately prioritized him. Cummings, a native of Midland, Pennsylvania, averaged 14.7 points and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range this season. He announced Friday that he would utilize his final year of eligibility to play for his hometown Panthers.

The addition of Cummings, especially so early in the offseason, immediately addressed a colossal need. While Burton and Sibande are both capable ball handlers, Cummings is a natural point guard who thrives at creating scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. He brings long distance shooting and shot creating ability that the Panthers desperately lacked last season.

While the Panthers can now feel confident in their backcourt of Cummings, Burton and Sibande, there are still a multitude of holes to fill. The primary focus now turns to building up an entirely new frontcourt around Hugley, along with adding several more outside-scoring threats.

Pitt’s most immediate need is a starting power forward. Capel will likely heavily feature three-guard lineups, and therefore needs a forward who can not only stretch the floor, but also defend big men and rebound effectively. This player will likely not be called on to score very much, but will need to be at least a threat to face up and knock down open shots.

Oregon graduate transfer Eric Williams fits that mold. Williams holds averages of 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game across his four-year career, while shooting 36.1% from three-point range. The Panthers recently reached out to Williams, who formerly played just a few minutes away at Duquesne University.

Once Capel is able to find a starting power forward, the remaining additions will be for depth.

Capel is currently prioritizing Class of 2022 wing Noah Batchelor and The Citadel transfer Jason Roche, both of whom would immediately make a major impact with their shooting ability. Roche is a familiar name for the Panthers, as he scored 27 points on eight three pointers in his Division I debut against Pitt this season.

In the frontcourt, Pitt has targeted several players, namely California University of Pennsylvania transfer Philip Alston and Old Dominion transfer Kalu Ezikpe. Both players would provide high-level athleticism and rebounding for the Panthers in significant minutes off the bench, and these are the qualities Capel should prioritize as he looks to add frontcourt depth. Pitt also expressed interest in true centers Mo Njie of Eastern Michigan and Neal Quinn of Lafayette to potentially back up and complement Hugley.

Lastly, Pitt will need to round out their already-strong backcourt. Capel prioritized Eastern Kentucky transfer Jomaru Brown and Niagara transfer Marcus Hammond to this point. Brown is a defensive specialist who can also attack the rim effectively, whereas Hammond is a sharpshooting, score-first player. Regardless of whether Capel manages to secure the commitment of one or both of these players in particular, expect Pitt to add two more guards with skill sets that match each of these profiles.

While there is a long road ahead for Pitt men’s basketball to construct a winning roster, early commitments and interests have displayed that the road does exist. The talent is available, and Capel’s future at Pitt will be determined by if he’s able to capitalize on that this offseason.