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Panthers starting from scratch under Jeff Capel

October 26, 2018

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jeff Capel considered the quick fix, one that would provide Pittsburgh with at least a temporary sense of relief following its freefall to the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Shortly after being hired to resuscitate the floundering program in April after two nightmarish seasons under Kevin Stallings, Capel scoured the list of graduate transfers, wondering if bringing in a handful of proven players with a year or two of eligibility remaining would be the most direct path to returning the Panthers to respectability.

“Do you want it to happen fast? You do,” Capel said. “Look, I want it to happen fast. But you have to understand you have to take the proper steps and do it the right way and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”

Ultimately, Capel took a different tack. While Pitt did add former New Mexico State guard Sidy N’Dir to a group coming off an 8-24 season that included an 0-19 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Capel kept his focus on the bigger picture. He signed three guards last spring — freshmen Xavier Johnson, Trey McGoverns and Au’Diese Toney — believing their potential far outweighs the short-term growing pains he knows will come.

“With the guys that decided to stay, with what we’ve done this spring and summer, I think we’ve gotten better,” Capel said.

Good thing, because there’s nowhere to go but up. Pitt cratered during Stallings’ brief tenure, one marked by significant player turnover and an inability for Stallings to connect with a fan base skeptical of his hire from the start.

Capel’s arrival after spending the last seven seasons as Mike Krzyzewski’s top assistant at Duke was met a decidedly more optimistic response. Season ticket orders are up even if the process of returning Petersen Events Center to its former perch as one of the most difficult arenas to visit in the country will take time. Perhaps lots of it.

That’s fine by Capel. In fact, it’s one of the reasons he opted to take the job. In a way, the 43-year-old is starting from scratch too. He spent a decade as a head coach in his late-20s and early-30s, leading Virginia Commonwealth and then Oklahoma to the NCAA Tournament. The Sooners reached the Elite Eight behind star Blake Griffin in 2009.

Two years later, Capel was out of a job, undone by an NCAA investigation into assistant coach Oronde Taliaferro — Capel was not implicated by the NCAA — that coincided with a downturn on the court.

“You have to win, I know that,” Capel said. “I got fired for not winning. You can take the NCAA stuff or whatever but you’ve seen look, you get fired for not winning, period.”

Capel believes the wins will come with the Panthers. It’s the when that’s tricky. Regarded as one of the nation’s top recruiters at Duke, Capel knows there needs to be a significant talent upgrade for Pitt to compete in arguably the nation’s toughest conference. That won’t happen overnight. In the interim Pitt retains the majority of the roster from last season, including senior swingman Jared Wilson-Frame and sophomore guard/forward Shamiel Stevenson.

It’s a blessing and a curse. While Capel is impressed with the buy-in from those who decided to stick around, he’s still taking over a team that hasn’t won a conference game in 20 months. The Panthers have adopted the slogan “brick by brick,” an acknowledgement that becoming an NCAA Tournament regular as it was under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon will take time.

The likely won’t be complete until the majority of the current roster has moved on. Yet he’s challenged his current group to take ownership of the process of changing the culture. He wants to do it by in a way returning an edge that defined the program during its days as a Big East power a decade ago.

“They beat you up, they did that, that’s what the really good teams do,” Capel said. “They defend you, they do all the little things exceptionally well. That’s their habit all the time. And that’s what we have to do. We have to learn how to do that.”

A couple things to look for as Pitt starts anew.

MALIK ON THE MOVE: Malik Ellison watched the Panthers sink from the sideline last year while sitting due to NCAA transfer rules. The former St. John’s guard may be Pitt’s best all-around player can create his own shot, a commodity the Panthers lacked last winter.

HE WENT TO JARED: Wilson-Frame shed 25 pounds in the offseason from his 6-foot-5 frame in an effort to become more explosive and more versatile. Capel praised Wilson-Frame’s dedication and believes Wilson-Frame will showcase that he can do more than just shoot.

TOUGH STRETCH: The schedule makers did Capel no favors. Pitt plays eight teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 and its home-and-home league opponents include Louisville and Syracuse. Capel faces his mentor and old boss when Krzyzewski and Duke visit on January 22.

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