Another Win Or Not, This Season Is A Success For Pitt

Jeff Capel & staff have already accomplished what was needed

Matt Koll
March 01, 2019 - 2:05 pm
Jeff Capel

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Pitt Panthers men’s basketball team has lost 11 games in a row.

Its now 2-13 in conference play.

It has three games remaining in the regular season, one at home against #2 Virginia Saturday, then one on the road at Miami before the final game of the year against Notre Dame at The Pete.

Even if the Panthers don’t win a single game from here, this 2018-19 season was a success for the program and for first year head coach Jeff Capel.

I believe this because of what they’ve accomplished on and off the court to this point and what they came from.

Let’s trek back just a year ago today.

Pitt had just wrapped up a winless conference record at 0-19 after a 73-56 loss to Notre Dame in South Bend.

Their leading scorer was Jared Wilson-Frame, now a 6th man for the Panthers, who scored 20 points in the losing effort.

They only scored more than 68 points in an ACC game once all season.

Their head coach Kevin Stallings, a man who was met with criticism and skepticism from literally the very beginning of his tenure at his introductory press conference, was now 24-40 overall and 4-32 in ACC play.

Rumors were flying around him that he could lose his job at any day and he eventually did shortly after.  

It’s not really remarkable that he got fired after a winless conference season but what is remarkable is that newly minted athletic director Heather Lyke made that decision despite having to pay Stallings a $9.4 million buyout.

Of course, that only came after they tried to fire Stallings with cause for yelling back at heckling Louisville fans during a game saying, “at least we didn't pay our guys $100,000,” when the school was fresh off their pay-for-play scandal. When that didn’t work, Pitt tried to negotiate it down to about $7.5 million as 93.7 The Fan’s Colin Dunlap reported on both instances.

Lets face it. It was a hideous mess.

The program needed a fresh face and headstrong leader more than ever.

Under the circumstances, I don’t think they could have done any better than hire Jeff Capel. Capel comes from an elite program in Duke where he played and was an assistant coach, has head coaching experience at VCU (’02-’06) and Oklahoma (’06-’11), and is an “ACC guy” which is rightfully valued by Lyke and her staff.

This season started off with a bang as Pitt outplayed its expectations. The Panthers started 7-0 before losing in the final seconds against #14 Iowa, compiling a 10-3 non-conference record.

The Panthers really turned some heads when they beat Louisville in overtime and followed that with a close 6-point loss to #15 NC State and a dominating 75-62 win over #11 Florida State.

They set the bar a little too high, though. The expectation at 2-2 in conference play suddenly jumped from “let’s just hope they can win a conference game” to “maybe they can go .500 in the ACC!”

The success proved to be unsustainable. In fact, the Panthers haven’t won a game since. But what led to that early success and the results from it is why this season is a success, in my opinion.

Upon Capel’s hiring, Pitt immediately gained more credibility and it showed early.

Freshman guards and Capel recruits Xavier Johnon and Trey McGowens burst onto the scene and showed off their raw talent. It was night and day watching those two drive to the hoop and show pure scoring ability compared to the guard play from the previous year.

Now these guys are ACC players. Iowa broadcaster Gary Dolphin thought so too, although he didn’t mean for it to become public knowledge.

He also brought in freshman Au’Diese Toney and transfers Malik Ellison and Sidy N’Dir. All average at least 20 minutes per game and have played key roles on this team.

The talent level jumped exponentially.

The results of that early success? Excitement.

The Petersen Events Center and the Oakland Zoo was rocking once again. It resembled something like what we used to know as one of the toughest places to play in country.

The results of that excitement? More recruiting power.

Admittedly, I’m not sure who exactly Capel is going to land for next season. But I do know Capel realizes he needs more to compliment Johnson and McGowens up top and recognizes his team is very undersized. I also know that Capel has said multiple times, both in press conferences and radio shows on 93.7 The Fan, that the crowd and the atmosphere around the program has impressed recruits. They see what they can play for and in front of and it excites them.

That’s the impact this season has had.

Don’t get caught up in the unsightly 2-13 ACC record. Don’t get caught up in the 11 game losing streak.

The bigger picture is that Pitt found the right guy in Jeff Capel, has already found talent to build around in Johnson, McGowens and Toney and has won support and interest back from its fan base that even recruits have taken notice of.

The Panthers have taken a giant step out of the muck they were in before this season.

They’ve managed to compete and even win a couple games after having very little to work with. They’ve had to learn how to win with an extremely young team, in arguably the toughest conference to win in in America.

They don’t have to come out on top in another game this year. It’s already been a resounding success.