PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jeff Capel can admit it now: One reason stood out when he opted to take over at Pittsburgh in the spring of 2018.
"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," Capel said.
Translation: The Panthers wanted to get better, but didn't want to make a hire that would focus on shortcuts in an attempt to get the program back to relevance. So Capel focused on youth and potential when he hit the recruiting trail after agreeing to take over for Kevin Stallings.
He didn't promise a quick fix. Last he checked, quick fixes don't necessarily lead to long-term solutions.
"Anything that's sustainable is built on solid foundation, and that's what we're trying to establish right now," Capel said.
The initial steps were encouraging. The Panthers improved from 8-24 (and winless in the Atlantic Coast Conference) to 14-19 in Capel's first season. Point guard Xavier Johnson and shooting guard Trey McGowens gave Capel a young backcourt to build around. The Panthers weren't always spectacular, but they were regularly competitive. Ten of their 19 losses were decided by 10 points or less, compared to just 8 of 24 losses the year before.
It wasn't perfect, but Pitt's play offered tangible proof of a group moving in the right direction. Attendance at the Petersen Events Center jumped from 4,117 to 6,749, restoring a bit of a buzz at a place that not so long ago was one of the toughest road venues in the country.
Now comes the hard part: backing it up. The expectation level last year was nonexistent. That's not the case anymore. Pitt was picked to finish a respectable 10th in the ACC, a tip of the cap to Capel's approach and a slightly more experienced roster that has a better understanding of what it takes to play in arguably the nation's toughest conference.
"I thought we had a lot of growth as a program in Year One," Capel said. "It didn't necessarily equate to as many wins as we would have liked. I think if you look at the wins off the court, the wins that we did as far as growth and development of the young people in our program, exciting and giving hope to our fan base, trying to develop habits, not just change them, but develop good habits, and then having — you know having an opportunity as we head into year two to have guys with some experience where now they understand what the standards are and they can help teach it where it is not just me and my coaching staff."
"X'' MARKS THE SPOT
Johnson set a Pitt freshman scoring record last season while also being the only player in the ACC to average at least 15.5 points and 4.5 assists per game. Yet all that work took a toll on his body. He wore down late in the year and made over 40% of his shots just twice over the final nine games. Johnson played so much last year because the options behind him were limited. That might not be the case this season with junior college transfer Ryan Murphy among a group that will get a chance to spell Johnson at times.
"The main thing I learned from my freshman year is that you have to be composed and you have to stay locked in and maintain the body," Johnson said. "That's one of the main things I'm carrying into this year."
POP THE CHAMPGANIE?
One of Capel's biggest coups on the recruiting trail was landing 6-foot-6 forward Justin Champagnie out of Brooklyn, New York. Champagnie's status for the season, is in doubt while he deals with a knee issue that Capel said could threaten Champagnie's entire season. His availability will play a major factor in whether Pitt can become more effective while playing against talented big men, a massive issue last year when Pitt ranked 200th in the country in rebound margin (minus 0.1 per game).
How far Pitt climbs will largely depend on how the Panthers do against the teams in the ACC's middle tier. They play a five-game stretch in early February against Clemson, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Florida State. A winning record over the course of that 13-day span and Capel's rebuild could be classified as ahead of schedule.
Pitt begins the season at home on Nov. 6 against Florida State.
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