Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Pitt coach Jeff Capel wins debut in dress rehearsal

November 24, 2018

As coaching debuts go, this was a dress rehearsal for Jeff Capel.

It was only an exhibition against Division II Pitt-Johnstown, but Capel got to hear public address announcer Joe DeStio introduce him “as the coach of your Pitt Panthers” and see his players perform in front of a crowd of 3,194 Thursday night at Petersen Events Center.

“It was great. I was excited, I was nervous, I was anxious - all of those things heading into this game,” Capel said following Pitt’s 78-59 victory. “Once it got going, then you lose yourself into the game.

“I’m incredibly appreciative of our students, the Oakland Zoo being here. You could hear ‘em, and we need ’em in the fight with us. It was really good to be out there as head coach of the University of Pittsburgh and to watch our team compete for 40 minutes.”

1. Booster endorsement: That John Conomikes sat center court in the VIP courtside seats was a welcome sight.

That Conomikes gave Capel a hearty endorsement spoke volumes.

After all, his name is on the door to Capel’s office.

A longtime member of Pitt’s Board of Trustees and chairman emeritus of its athletics committee, Conomikes is a basketball enthusiast who rarely misses a Panthers game.

Except for the past two seasons, when his attendance was sporadic.

That tells you everything you need to know about how Pitt supporters felt about the Panthers’ drastic decline from the Jamie Dixon era to the past two seasons under Kevin Stallings.

“I couldn’t watch,” Conomikes said.

Conomikes liked what he saw from Pitt, noting that freshmen Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney should still be in high school. Both recruits reclassified, graduating early to play for Capel. Conomikes liked how Pitt hustled and played defense.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Conomikes said. “We got the right guy.”

2. Coaching endorsement: It was a thrill for UPJ coach Bob Rukavina to play at the Pete for the third time in 11 years.

Rukavina, who has coached the Mountain Cats since 1989, grew up in Verona, worked Pitt camps in the 1980s with then-assistant Seth Greenberg and resides in Lower Burrell.

Rukavina was impressed that the Panthers used four players on the perimeter, with only one big man. That favored UPJ, whose tallest player is 6-foot-9, but Rukavina believes it could pose matchup issues for opponents when Pitt plays in the ACC.

“When they get into league play, they’re going to give up a lot of size,” Rukavina said, “but some big guys are going to have a tough time guarding those guys on the perimeter. That’s a tough matchup. They are going to present some problems.”

3. Player endorsement: Freshman point guard Xavier Johnson, one of three Panthers to finish with 14 points, had an interesting take on what it was like to play for Capel in a game setting.

“In practice, he is more intense,” Johnson said. “He pays attention to every detail. If you do something wrong, he stops play and he will tell us what we can do better.”

Johnson was 6 of 8 from the field, including a breakaway dunk in the first half, as Pitt shot 51.7 percent (30 of 58) from the field but only 36 percent (9 of 25) from 3-point range.

“That’s a big emphasis with Coach,” Johnson said of Capel. “In the locker room, he told us to be confident in your open shots and take open shots and we will knock them down.”

4. Endorsing his assistants: What was surprising to see is that Capel spent much of the first half sitting on the bench.

It explains Johnson’s practice intensity response.

That Capel allowed his associate head coach Tim O’Toole and assistants Milan Brown and Jason Capel - Jeff’s younger brother - to be so involved in the coaching wasn’t by design.

It was out of respect.

All three are former Division-I head coaches, O’Toole at Fairfield, Brown at Mount St. Mary’s and Holy Cross and Jason Capel at Appalachian State.

“Those guys are really good,” Capel said. “If they see something or want something, I want them to have the freedom to coach.”

5. Endorsing Capel: Don’t let the final score fool you.

UPJ led by three at 16:53 of the first half, but the Panthers were up by as many as 29 points in the second half.

The Panthers lost three likely starters - Ryan Luther (Arizona), Marcus Carr (Minnesota) and Parker Stewart (Tennessee-Martin) to transfers - and incorporated three freshmen, a graduate transfer and a player who sat out last season into their lineup.

Two of those players had missed practice time with injuries, freshman Au’Diese Toney (concussion) and graduate transfer Sidy N’Dir (foot), who was cleared for practice on Wednesday.

This was their first game together, and it showed.

And Capel made it clear that forward Shamiel Stevenson, who started 13 games and averaged 8.5 points and 4.4 rebounds a game as a freshman, was going to have to perform better in practice if he wants to play more than two minutes.

Capel said he wants the signature of his Panthers to be playing together, with toughness and to fight and compete on every possession. And they did just that.

“We know the competition level will become greater,” Capel said. “We understand that. We’re trying to build good habits.”

On that front, it was good for Pitt to play a game under the lights before they open their season against Youngstown State on Tuesday at the Pete.

It’s too early to give a ringing endorsement, but Capel and his Panthers made a positive first impression.

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