Pitt’s Jeff Capel eager to resume reconstruction project in 2nd season
Jeff Capel knows there’s nothing easy about competing in the ACC.
Who would know better than someone entering his 13th season as either a player or a coach in the conference?
Capel didn’t have to lose 15 of 18 ACC games last year in his first season as Pitt’s coach to understand the level of difficulty in trying to compete against some of the best teams in college basketball.
He did lose those games, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing now that last season is history.
When he watches his second Pitt team practice and speaks to and with the players, he knows his job might be at little less complicated because it’s his team, finally. Meanwhile, he won’t ignore the past because that’s part of what he’s trying to recapture. Fans only need to remember back to 2016 when Pitt earned its 13th NCAA tournament berth in 15 years.
“You know, this has been one of the better programs in college basketball,” he told reporters Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., during ACC media days.
“They were relevant on a national scale, multiple Big East championships. This (Petersen Events Center) was one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball. It was voted that.
“Those are all the things that appealed to me when they came after me for this job.”
But that’s not all that he liked about the job.
Pitt was 4-32 in the ACC in the two seasons before he arrived, and that scratched his itch to build.
“You know, to a certain extent, it was exciting that it was down, that it was a rebuild because it gives me an opportunity to build it exactly how I want to build it.
“I understand that that takes time. We want to have a solid foundation. Anything that’s sustainable is built on solid foundation, and that’s what we’re trying to establish right now.
“You know, I thought we had a lot of growth as a program in Year One. It didn’t necessarily equate to as many wins as we would have liked.”
But he points to wins that aren’t reflected in the standings, such as:
• The growth of freshmen Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney into experienced sophomores. Johnson led the team in scoring (15.5 points per game), McGowens was third (11.6) and Toney was the top rebounder (5.6) at 6-foot-6.
• The added maturity of big man Terrell Brown, who returns as a junior after leading the team in blocks last season (60).
“I think they have all gotten better,” Capel said of those four players.
• Plus, he believes transfers Eric Hamilton and Ryan Murphy and at least some members of the freshman class might be of immediate help.
Despite the record, Capel was able to stress defense to his young team and the players responded. Pitt was third in the ACC in forcing turnovers (14.7) and sixth in steals (6.9).
What excites Capel even more is something that can’t be measured by numbers.
“Having an opportunity as we head into Year Two to have guys with some experience,” he said. “They understand what the standards are, and they can help teach it where it is not just me and my coaching staff.
“So, I thought Year One was very positive as far as taking steps forward as a program. Our goal right now is to take another big step this year.”
The season opens Nov. 6 with a conference game against Florida State at the recently reconfigured Pete with the Oakland Zoo directly behind the benches.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .