To put it mildly, Kevin Stallings was never a good fit at Pitt. Even at his introductory press conference he was treated with skepticism bordering on derision.
A bit bizarrely, he reunited with Sheldon Jeter, who had transferred from Vanderbilt where he had also played for Stallings. The transfer didn’t go very well with Stallings placed restrictions on what Jeter could do. Surprisingly, Jeter was willing to play for Stallings again and even acted as a bridge between the coach and his new team. He also had Michael Young, Jamel Artis, Cameron Johnson (now at UNC), Chris Jones and Ryan Luther.
Not top-line talent but not horrible either.
Pitt finished at 16-17, played erratically and Stallings didn’t mince words when criticizing his team which didn’t go over well with fans and the media.
In fact it’s hard to point to anything that went well for Stallings at Pitt that season and his second, and final year was even worse. Far worse.
Pitt won just eight games and finished the season on a 19-game losing streak. Stallings had recruited nearly an entirely new squad - graduation and transfers decimated his first one - and this team, unlike its predecessor, didn’t really have anything like ACC-level talent.
Pitt fans and media rebelled and his odds of keeping his job, which weren’t particularly strong in the first place, went down as he mishandled another transfer.
This time it was Cam Johnson, a Jamie Dixon recruit, who wanted to depart for UNC as an immediately eligible grad transfer.
Stallings understandably preferred not to arm his conference opponent but he lost the media war and badly. Jay Bilas, among others, skewered him and when Johnson spoke for himself, and eloquently, Stallings finally gave up. It wasn’t long after that Pitt formally gave up on him and sent him packing.
On the bright side, he never did have to play against Johnson at UNC.
After a search that started poorly as Pitt aimed perhaps too high, the Panthers honed in on Duke assistant Jeff Capel. And after Capel and his wife visited, both thought it was a great place to be. And soon Pitt was introducing Capel as its new head coach.
Unlike Stallings, Capel won the press conference, and resoundingly. The media loved him. He said all the right things. In fact, it’s not going to far to say that there was a collective swoon.
He hit the ground running, first convincing several players to cancel their transfer plans (almost the entire team planned to leave following Stallings’ departure).
Then he hit the recruiting trail and found several solid late prospects.
The Panthers haven’t even started practice but the mood is 180 degrees from what it was last spring where the wheels seemed to be coming off and quickly.
After Pitt joined the ACC, there was a school of thought that was completely pessimistic about Pitt’s chances to succeed and Stallings reinforced that. Dixon had recruited Big East territory very well and shrewdly, finding players who weren’t necessarily great but who certainly became very good at Pitt.
Joining the ACC, the thinking went, would make recruiting New York particularly hard.
In his first freshman class, Capel found another direction and brought in players from Virginia, Alabama, South Carolina and one hometown kid.
Problem solved, perception changed. Just like that. Now Pitt folks can focus on the positives Pitt has to offer.
First there is the Oakland Zoo, the student body which, when things are going well, is a real asset.
And Pittsburgh itself is a great asset. And by the way, Capel, no dummy, went out of his way to ingratiate himself with the city’s sports establishment. He’s a Steelers/Penguins/Pirates fan and they seem to like him too. That’s going to help enormously. Pitt is a large city with over 300,000 people. The population has fallen in half since the steel industry began to decline in the 1960s but the city has rebounded in many ways and the people who stayed are fiercely loyal to city institutions and teams.
You have to win both the crowd and the games to succeed but as Stallings proved, it’s possible to lose the crowd almost immediately. Capel is not a stupid man and was not going to make the same mistake. All summer he showed up in various places in Pirates, Penguins and Steeler uniforms. He embraced the town and it in turn is welcoming him enthusiastically.
He hasn’t made a false move yet. All he has to do now is to win. And that may take a year or two, possibly longer.
Capel worked hard and managed to convince Jared Wilson-Frame, Kene Chukwuka, Shamiel Stevenson, Khameron Davis, Terrell Brown, Samson George and Peace Ilegomah to stick around.
Some of those guys might get better (they weren’t very good last season), but the best right now are probably Wilson-Frame, Stevenson and Davis.
Wilson-Frame, a 6-5 senior, was stuck in an impossible situation last season. On a reasonably competent team he’d be a great complimentary player. On Pitt last year, he was just asked to do too much due to the general incompetence of his teammates and, to an extent, Stallings.
Wilson-Frame loved to shoot threes but Pitt needed more inside. He is a reasonably solid passer and understands the game pretty well. He’s just modestly talented and there’s not much he can do about that except maximize it and compensate through intelligence.
Stevenson, a 6-6 wing, played 24 minutes per game but like just about everyone else thought about leaving when Stallings was canned. He hit 50.5% from the floor which is really good considering how bad his team was (and how easy therefore to defend). Stallings thought he had a chance to grow into a solid, versatile player and he’s probably right
Davis was lightly regarded but the 6-4 guard has a 6-10 wingspan and could be a really good defender. We’re sure Capel will know what to do with him.
His offense was limited last year but he also had to deal with a knee injury and plantar fasciitis which is miserable for anyone but surely maddening for an athlete.
He could develop into a very good player at least on defense and any offensive improvement would be a boon.
The other returnees are kind of questionable.
There was some mild buzz about the 6-9 JUCO Chukwuka coming in but he didn’t pan out as a sophomore. He averaged 2.5 ppg and 2.5 rpg. He shot very poorly, just 35.5% overall and only 19.1% from deep.
Unfortunately he really liked shooting threes.
His effort was appreciated however. If he continues to work hard who knows? He could make himself into an adequate player - but probably not from three point range.
Of the big men, the 6-10 Brown had the most success, getting 17.3 mpg. He managed 4.4 ppg and 3.4 rpg. It takes longer for bigger people to mature so we’ll have to see how he improves. He could make huge strides. Or he could just be a competent reserve - which is fine. Every team needs them.
Ilegomah, a 6-9 sophomore, played in 23 games but barely scratched statistically.
And while Samson George isn't really a big man at 6-7, his skills at this stage are somewhat limited. He played less than Ilegomah and neither could produce on a historically bad team.
They still might turn out, but as a general rule of thumb, if you’re bad on a historically bad team, the odds of being good later aren’t that high.
Two transfers will certainly help.
Malik Ellison sat out last year after leaving St. John’s. He’s very likely to start and will be good. He’s 6-6 and while Pitt may not be good enough for him to play strictly to his strengths, his size and athleticism will be great for Capel. He should be able to do a lot of different things depending on what’s needed.
French native Side N’dir comes from New Mexico. In 2016-17 he averaged 13.7 points and 2.1 assists for the Lobos. He’s also seen as a very good defender. He’s also quite strong. He’s mature and should help on a daily basis as a young team with a new coach tries to figure it out.
The freshmen are Xavier Johnson (6-3), Trey McGowens (6-3), Au’Diese Toney (6-6) and Curtis Aiken (6-1).
Johnson is seen as a 3-4 star combo guard who originally committed to Nebraska.
Capel said this about Johnson: “Xavier is an outstanding guard prospect with the athleticism and skill set to be an impact player on our team. His quickness and competitiveness are his biggest assets and he has also shown the ability to use both to take over the game on either end of the floor. Xavier has the opportunity to be a building block for the future of our program. I am looking forward to having the opportunity to work with him as he continues his growth as a player and as a person.”
So he’ll be helpful.
So will McGowens, who was generally more highly regarded. Like Johnson he’s a combo guard.
Capel really went after guys who could play point guard because he thinks that is the only definite position in the modern game.
If they can’t handle it, maybe Curtis Aiken can.
His dad was a Pitt star back in the day and Jr. has inherited some of his talent. He’s said to be highly athletic and a bit sneaky. His dad works on the radio network incidentally.
Like Duke’s Joey Baker, Toney went to Trinity Christian and like Baker he reclassified. Fayetteville is also Capel’s hometown but not Toney’s: he’s from Huntsville, Alabama.
Toney is talented enough to start as a freshman.
And that’s part of the good news for Pitt: the talent is much better. With N’Dir, Wilson-Frame, Ellison, Stevenson, Davis, Johnson, McGowens, Toney, Aiken and possibly Brown, Capel has a group that’s athletic enough to at least compete in the ACC.
Youth is typically punished in this league, even at Duke, where Coach K has brought in a number of one-and-done players in last year.
Remember the Virginia game? Where Trevon Duval had a key turnover in the closing seconds on a long pass almost everyone could see was a bad idea?
So Capel may have some growing pains with this group and it’s also not very big. Look at that group again and you’ll see most of the core is under 6-7.
Still, it’s a group he can work with. We’ve seen teams where everyone is essentially the same size - 6-4 to 6-7 - that are amazing. The great Illinois team featured Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo, Kenny Battle, and Lowell Hamilton and was a real preview of what we now call position less basketball.
It’s a reasonable model for this team with a bunch of guys from 6-4 to 6-6.
Capel, to his credit, has quickly addressed the talent deficit he inherited. He recognized another problem and has dealt with it quickly and effectively as well.
In June, he took his team to D.C., not for basketball, but to visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture and Arlington National Cemetery where they learned about people who, in a familiar expression to Duke fans, sacrificed to be part of something larger than themselves.
It’s borrowed from Coach K of course, who has taken his Duke and U.S. teams to military bases and other places to make the same point, but for Pitt, coming off of last season’s disaster, it’s a brilliant move.
If Capel can get this team to play together, to play hard and to care about each other, they’ll start to build a foundation and might even surprise a bit.
And Capel is an astute pick. He spent four years at Duke as a player and then several more as Coach K’s most valued assistant.
He started fast at VCU, soared then crashed at Oklahoma and made a reputation at Duke as a tremendous recruiter.
At Pitt, he’s got a chance to build something pretty cool. Despite the doubters, the university and critically the city have so much to offer. It’s a proud and vibrant place with tremendous history and a bright future. Check this out and this and this.
In many ways, Pittsburgh is the model for Rust Belt cities eager to reinvent themselves.
Capel has a chance to do the same for the basketball program at Pitt. He’s embraced the city and he’s been embraced back. He still has to produce, but he has a chance to build something pretty remarkable. We certainly wouldn’t bet against him.