Kevin Gorman: Pitt needs to recruit top talent, and Jeff Capel is ready to run point
Jeff Capel wasted no words when asked about being associate coach to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski or accepting the Pitt head coach job, even when those worlds were about to collide when the Panthers played the Blue Devils.
“It’s not about me,” Capel said, repeatedly.
That was his answer for the focus on his first season with the Panthers, his answer for being credited with serving as the primary recruiter on lottery picks like Brandon Ingram, Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter and future first-rounders RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson.
So it should come as no surprise Coach K took exception to my description of Capel as a point man in recruiting, cutting off the question before I could finish it late Tuesday after Duke’s 79-64 victory over Pitt.
“We don’t have a point man,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m the point man in recruiting. All of us are good recruiters. There wasn’t one guy that was responsible for anybody.”
That wasn’t my point, but Krzyzewski’s was well-taken.
The differences between Duke and Pitt were on display, from the talent of Barrett and Williamson to the length and depth that allowed the Blue Devils to sit back in a zone defense and suffocate the Panthers. What’s difficult for Pitt is not just playing against Duke but trying to prepare for such a game.
“We can’t simulate 6-7, 6-7, 6-8 and 6-11 in practice, and that’s what that zone was,” Capel said, when asked to compare the zones of Duke and Syracuse. “I don’t think it was just that. I mean, they’re better than us. They’re more talented than us. That’s what it was. I don’t think it was just a zone. I think it was their talent and how good they are that won. I don’t think zone is kryptonite for us.”
No, Pitt’s kryptonite is its lack of size and depth and talent up front. The Panthers have two regulars taller than 6-foot-6 in the rotation, and Terrell Brown and Kene Chukwuka share the same position in the post. An immediate infusion of talented frontcourt players is necessary, which is one reason Capel admitted that Pitt has “a long way to go.”
Capel is showing his coaching ability by competing against the best of the ACC with a young, guard-driven team. That’s hardly a recipe for success. And the Duke game marked the fourth time in a six-game stretch Pitt played a nationally ranked opponent. The Panthers beat Louisville, which was unranked at the time but is now No. 23, and Florida State, which is now unranked but was No. 11 at the time. But Pitt endured blowouts at home to North Carolina and Duke that showed just how far it has to go to close the talent gap.
It starts with recruiting.
“I don’t need that for motivation,” Capel said. “I’m motivated to do that. I want to get outstanding players that want to be a part of what we want to do and what we’re building and be a part of this university, be a part of this community and be a part of this program.
“Pitt has had really good players, so I don’t need to see Duke or Carolina to know that. I knew that when I took it. I’ve been fortunate in my head-coaching career before where I’ve had outstanding players. At VCU, players of the year, rookies of the year. At Oklahoma, national player of the year, rookies of the year, stuff like that. I’ve had that, and I don’t have any doubt that we’ll be able to attract that type of talent here.”
Neither do I, as Capel already proved his worth as an elite recruiter as an assistant at Duke and, before that, as coach at VCU and Oklahoma. With the Sooners, he landed four McDonald’s All-Americans in five years, including the consensus national player of the year, Blake Griffin. Capel knows how to sell and, more important, how to close.
The question is whether he can do it at Pitt and how soon. Krzyzewski believes Capel already has, crediting him for luring freshmen guards Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney in a short time. Finding forwards is Capel’s next challenge, and it’s one that will require help from assistants Tim O’Toole, Milan Brown and Jason Capel. But Krzyzewski made it clear that while everybody on staff is needed to recruit a top prospect, it comes down to the head coach being the closer.
“Jeff’s a hell of a coach and a hell of a recruiter,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s not one guy on any successful staff that’s responsible for recruiting. Everybody is responsible. And the head coach is the guy who’s really responsible. That’s what he’s going to do here. Those kids didn’t come here because of Jason Capel or Timmy O’Toole — and I love both of them — they came here because of Jeff Capel and his vision. The thing he has to be is that head coach/outstanding recruiter, which he is and will continue to be.”
That’s where it’s all about Jeff Capel, the man running the point for Pitt.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.