Jeff Capel is now in his second year as coach of Pitt’s men’s basketball team, and while he doesn’t think the job itself has become any easier from Year 1 to Year 2, there has been one improvement: he’s gotten better at navigating Pittsburgh’s notoriously confusing streets.
“I feel so much more comfortable in Pittsburgh,” Capel said. “Not that I didn’t feel comfortable last year, but I know my way around now. I don’t have to get on Waze or Google Maps anymore for a lot of the places that I go.”
As far as the Panthers, who were picked to finished 10th in the ACC by the media, Capel feels more comfortable with them as well.
“I do feel better about where we are. I do think that I have a better feel about where we are. We still have a long ways to go to get to where we want to be, but I think we’re taking the necessary steps to make that happen.”
Last year’s team saw its fair share of struggles, going 18-24 overall and 3-15 in ACC play. The Panthers were undersized, which created matchup problems against conference opponents. A 13-game losing streak that began in January and didn’t end until the second Saturday in March showed just how far Pitt still had to go to become competitive in the ACC.
However, the team also showed promise, particularly in a memorable five-day span in which Pitt beat Louisville and No. 11 Florida State. Freshmen Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, and Au’Diese Toney – all Capel recruits – made an impact. Johnson became Pitt’s highest and most consistent scorer; McGowens imposed his will in the wins against the Cardinals and Seminoles, scoring at least 30 points in both games; and Toney led Pitt in rebounds, in addition to doing many things that don’t show up on any stat sheet.
Also returning is center Terrell Brown. The Panthers will be without their other returning big man, Kene Chukwuka, to start the season as Chukwuka recovers from hip surgery; no timetable has been given for his return.
Despite just three conference victories last season, the 2018-19 squad was still an improvement from the previous year’s, which went winless in conference play.
This year, Pitt has five new players, including three freshmen and two transfers. Last year’s team may have been mired in basement of the ACC for much of the season, but
Capel and his staff attracted players who could help fill key roles for Pitt, including graduate Eric Hamilton and freshman Abdoul Karim Coulibaly, both who could help reinforce Pitt’s front court and improve the Panthers’ game defensively. Freshmen Gerald Drumgoole and Justin Champagnie, along with junior college transfer Ryan Murphy are expected to help Pitt’s shooting.
Capel’s mission to return Pitt to its winning ways hasn’t gotten any easier in one of the toughest basketball conferences in the country. The ACC boasts four teams ranked in the top 11 of the AP preseason poll.
The Panthers begin their 2019-20 journey against ACC opponent Florida State. Despite losing to Pitt last year, the Seminoles went on to be runners up in the conference tournament and they made it to a regional semifinal in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. The Florida State game last year featured McGowens and Johnson doing what they do best – driving the lane and drawing fouls. The two combined for 48 points in Pitt’s 75-62 victory. They also went a combined 28 of 29 from the free throw line.
As exciting as Pitt’s win over Florida State was for the program, it provided a blueprint for other teams to beat the Panthers – clog the lane and keep McGowens and Johnson from getting to the line. The two had trouble adjusting their games at times, but Capel believes that will improve this season.
“Sometimes that adjustment is more difficult to make as a freshman because it’s all new,” Capel said. “On top of that, you’re playing 30-plus minutes a game and there’s a lot of pressure on you. So I think just natural growth and development from freshman to sophomore year should help them.”
Capel also thinks the additions made around McGowens and Johnson could help the two sophomores – and the team as a whole – this season.
“Hopefully, that we’ve added a little bit more talent, guys that can make some shots. So if they do clog those lanes, there’s going to be some opening somewhere and hopefully we can make them pay for that.”
The second-year coach believes having more talent and more depth will help the Panthers get to where they want to go, even if it’s a lengthy process – much like the coach navigating his new city a year ago.
“I’m a country boy, so being here in a city and trying to navigate bridges and one-way streets and tunnels and different things like that, that’s a little bit much for me,” Capel said. “A little bit too fast-paced from what I’ve been accustomed to. So I didn’t (get lost) because I had (navigation), but if it froze, I was messed up. Which it did a few times.
“I maybe had a bunch of people honking at me from behind and throwing up some fingers, but that’s okay,” Capel said with a chuckle. “I found my way.”
Pitt fans can only hope the team follows his lead and finds its way in a conference that is as difficult to navigate as Pittsburgh city streets.