Capel Prepares to Face Mentor Krzyzewski For First Time

Former Duke assistant, player, praises former team

Josh Rowntree
January 21, 2019 - 4:33 pm
Duke Blue Devils assistant coach Jeff Capel (left) and head coach Mike Krzyzewski (right) react on the bench against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the first half at the Petersen Events Center.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As Jeff Capel gets set to face the man who recruited him, coached him, and hired him at one of his lowest points, he found one word to describe the moment: weird.

“When I walk out there for the first time, I’m sure it’ll be weird,” said Capel, who will lead Pitt against Mike Krzyzewski and No. 2 Duke Tuesday night at the Petersen Events Center.

Capel shined as a player at Duke, starting all four years under Krzyzewski. When Capel was fired from his position as Oklahoma’s head coach, Krzyzewski welcomed him back to Durham, giving him an assistant coaching job, which he held for seven years. 

“With coach (Krzyzewski), he means so much to me. I’ve had a relationship with him since I was 16 years old,” Capel said. “I committed to play at Duke when I was 17. I’m 43 and I tell people that when I was 16-17 years old, I believed in him. I swear by him now, because I know him.

“I know who he is, the man that he is, the impact that he has had on my life and the impact he’s had on the lives of everyone that has worn that jersey. He’s special. I miss him, I miss our interactions, I miss our chances to be around him every day, to soak in the knowledge.”

So yes, the opening moments will surely be strange for Capel. But what may be even more strange is that, after going winless in the ACC a year ago, the Panthers might be able to hang with the star-studded Blue Devils. But Capel’s knowledge, having coached some of Duke’s talent and recruited others, could serve as an advantage.

“Some of the plays they run, I know. I know the calls for them and what they’re trying to accomplish on it. But, like the great Mike Tyson said, everyone has a gameplan until you get hit.”

Standing in Pitt’s way of a monumental upset, which would come not long after last Monday’s triumph over No. 11 Florida State, is a menacing presence in 6-foot-7, 285-pound phenom Zion Williamson.

Considered the likely top NBA Draft pick this summer, Williamson is scoring 21.5 points per game, while grabbing 9.4 rebounds per, as well. His size and versatility make him a nightmare to prepare for, according to Capel. 

“He’s really, really special. He’s such a unique player in such a unique body. In my time, I’ve never seen a guy like that. You have to try, as much as you can , to keep him away from the basket. But all that stuff is easier said than done.

“No one in the world can simulate Zion.”

The Panthers do not have a Zion Williamson. But what they do have is, perhaps, a group of young, talented scorers who have brought life back into the Pete following Pitt’s disastrous 2017-2018 season. One of those is freshman point guard Xavier Johnson.

“I think we can play with any team,” said Johnson, Pitt’s leading scorer at 17.1 points per game. “That Florida State win was a big key though. It just let the league know that we’re nothing to play with. It was a statement.”

Johnson, as well as senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame, insist they will not be caught up with the star power of Duke, which is coming off a win over previously unbeaten Virginia on Saturday. 

“We’re tough, really tough,” said Wilson-Frame. “We’re not back down to anybody. And we have enough talent to where that is actually something we can uphold and stand by.”

On the other side, their coach will look to ease his own nerves against his former boss.

“Once it’s tipped up, we’ll get after it,” Capel said. “But it will be a little bit surreal, walking out there and being on the opposite sideline from him.

“We have a chance to see where we are against, I think, the premier program in college athletics.”

You can listen to Tuesday’s game, set for a 9 p.m. tipoff, on 93.7 The Fan. 

Listen to all of what Jeff Capel had to say below.