Capel’s Strategy for Pitt Feels Like Old Times

Hear from Pitt's coach before AC game vs Wake Forest

Josh Rowntree
January 03, 2020 - 11:59 am
Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Jeff Capel reacts on the sidelines against the Florida State Seminoles during the first half at the Petersen Events Center.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Toughness, physicality, suffocating defense. 

For many years, those words were used to describe Pitt basketball. It’s why banners are in the rafters. It’s why the program reached the highest ranking in the country. It's why 'the Pete' turned into a house of horrors for opponents.

It is, simply, the foundation of what many came to expect of the Panthers. And Jeff Capel is working to bring that back. 

Capel’s Panthers are 10-3 as they get set to dive back into ACC play Saturday against Wake Forest. With them comes the conference’s second-best scoring defense, one ranked 17th in the NCAA having allowed 59.7 points per game. 

“Our stuff is not going to be pretty,” said Capel, fully in the swing of his second season on Pitt’s bench. “We have to be the hungry team. We have to be the team that has a chip on our shoulder. We have to understand that defense is what we hang our hat on. 

“We’re not a pretty offensive team. We have to be the dirty work guys. The grit, the toughness, defending, physical block-outs. We have to go get the basketball. If the ball is on the floor, we have to be the first to get it. We have to try to create easy stuff for our defense. We have to try to make it a challenge and hard to score against us.”

And they have, so far. 

On the road, Pitt held top-ranked Louisville to 64 points. In a non-conference tournament in Fort Myers in November, the Panthers allowed just 59 points to both Kansas State and Northwestern. In Pitt’s lone ACC contest, the Panthers defended their way to a 63-61 win over Florida State in the season opener. 

“I think with what we’ve done with our schedule, I’d like to think our guys can feel that we can compete with anyone,” Capel said. “But the main things is that we have to understand how we have to compete.”

The emphasis on defensive play has come as Pitt’s offense still looks to find its footing. The Panthers are 12th in the ACC in scoring at 66.4 points per game. Their three-point shooting, in particular, has stumbled out of the gates, shooting at a 28.8 percent clip.

But the defense isn’t just keeping the Panthers alive, it’s winning them games over quality opponents. And, because of it, Pitt basketball might just be emerging back onto the national scene. 

“I don’t know. I can’t tell you what other people think about us, nor do I really care, to be honest,” Capel said. “We just want to play hard. We have to earn respect. Respect is not given, we have to earn it. 

“How you earn stuff is you have to invest in it. You have to work hard every day. You have to show up every day with the mindset to get better. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what we try to concentrate and focus on in our program.”

Pitt's next opponent, Wake Forest, is at 7-5 under head coach Danny Manning, a man Capel refers to as one of the best to ever play college basketball for his standout play at Kansas. But Manning’s Demon Deacons have not been able to find success in his six years, compiling a record of 72-89 with just one NCAA tournament appearance. 

But Wake Forest does have a quality win of late, a 80-78 victory over Xavier on December 14. And transition offense is a big reason why, as Wake Forest has the ACC’s seventh-best offense and leads the conference in free throws attempted and made. While Capel is cognizant of that, he has more internal concerns. 

“We take care of us, we try to concentrate on us and we try to concentrate on the things that we think are the strengths of our team and try to work on some of the weaknesses,” he said. “But we don’t spend a lot of time on that… It’s not as much about Wake Forest. It’s about us and that’s what we’re trying to concentrate on.”

And, right now, that concentration is working.

Hear all of Jeff Capel’s press conference below.