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ACC Preview #13 - Pitt

Jeff Capel has some talent now. Let’s see what he can do with it.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Pittsburgh
 Mar 1, 2022; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers forward John Hugley (23) shoots against the Duke Blue Devils during the first half at the Petersen Events Center.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Capel got a bit of heat last season with Pitt finishing 11-21 and 6-14 in the ACC. Pitt has now had six losing seasons in a row, and that gets old for anyone, and certainly for fans.

But not for Pitt AD Heather Lyke, at least not yet.

Lyke endorsed Capel last spring despite the difficult season, saying that “[y]ou don’t make personnel decisions based on buyouts at the end of the day. You do it based on the ability and the leadership qualities of that person and your confidence in them and their belief in what they’re doing. That’s why we kept Jeff.”

Capel is under contract through 2027 but her confidence must have come as welcome news.

So far he is 51-69 at Pitt. At VCU, he was 79-41 and at Oklahoma 96-69. Things ended badly at Oklahoma, but Capel had the Sooners, at one point, at #1 in the country.

So why have things been so difficult at Pitt?

It’s hard to say from the outside. Pitt has had some talent but the idea that Capel would go there and keep recruiting like he did at Duke was probably unfair. Pitt is not Duke. It hasn’t even been Pitt for awhile.

The situation two years ago when Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney, both talented players, left the team near the end of the season by mutual agreement with Capel, was concerning. They followed the talented Trey McGowens, who had left the season before.

Pitt had a lot to overcome last season and started with losses to the Citadel, Vanderbilt, UMBC and Monmouth in their first 10 games.

They did beat St. John’s, a dispirited Louisville, Syracuse, and UNC in February when the Heels were starting to heat up.

But basically it was another tough season.

Pitt lost two player the old fashioned way as Mouhamadou Gueye and Chayce Smith finished their full four (or five or six, who the hell knows anymore?) at Pitt. Gueye is playing pro ball on some level while Chase moves on as a grad student hoping to land somewhere else. He was a walk-on so it’s not a big loss.

What is a big deal are some of the transfers out: Noah Collier left for William & Mary, Chris Payton relocated to Kent State, Onyebuch Ezeakudo moved down to Radford, Dan Oladapo is in Durham at NCCU, Ithiel Horton will play for Johnny Dawkins at Central Florida , Femi Odukale is off to Seton Hall and Max Amaduson joins St. Bonaventure

Some of those guys are no big loss when it comes to minutes and production, but Horton and Odukale got heavy minutes and Ezeakudo was in the rotation as well. Those departures are significant.

But John Hugley is back, and that’s huge. And at 6-9 and 265, so is Hugley. He averaged 14.9 ppg last year and 7.9 rebounds. He’s the tentpole for this team.

William Jeffress, a 6-7 junior, is also back but just when is uncertain. He injured his left foot and is expected back around late October. He didn’t have gaudy stats but he did play 20 minutes a night so his value is clear to Capel.

Nike Sibande and Charlotte native Jamarius Burton, both 6-4, are back and should give Pitt a solid pair of guards.

Nate Santos, a 6-7 freshman, got about 12.8 mpg last season. His shooting was dreadful: 22 percent on threes, 32.1 percent overall and 62.5 percent from the line. Shot Doctor, are you in the house? Code Blue! Stat!

And that’s about it for returnees although KJ Marshall is a different sort of returnee. A 5-9 walk-on, he left for a year at JUCO hoping to get a scholarship offer. When that didn’t happen, or at least not to his satisfaction, he returned to Pitt. Obviously he’s not going to play a lot unless Pitt has a year like FSU had last season.

Keeping up with transfers is getting really difficult, especially when a school like Pitt has a revolving door. There appear to be four: 6-0 grad student Nelly Cummings, who started at Bowling Green then transferred to Colgate before returning to Pennsylvania. He hails from Midland, which is just about an hour upstream on the Ohio River.

Blake Hinson started at MIssissippi and transferred to Iowa State. He sat out last year for undisclosed medical reasons and left when he and coach TJ Otzelberger disagreed on what his role should be. At 6-7 and 255, he’s got some heft. He averaged 10.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg and 1.4 apg as a sophomore in the SEC. And back then, he played at 229, incidentally.

Greg Elliot comes over from Marquette, where he played for both Steve Wojciechowski and Shaka Smart and was also a teammate of Theo John’s. A 6-3 guard, he averaged 5.6 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists over his time with the Golden Eagles. He has a significant injury history with thumbs and ankles. This is his sixth and final collegiate season.

Finally, Fede Federiko arrives from Northern Oklahoma College, a community college near the border with Kansas. He’s 6-11 and you don’t have to know a lot to understand why Pitt wanted him. Just look at the picture in this story. He should be a good backup/strategic alternative to Hugley. As solid as he’s been, Hugley is not a long shotblocker. The picture reminds us a good bit of Mark Williams.

The freshman class is pretty good, starting with Dior Johnson.

A 6-3 guard out of Kingston, New York, he attended high school at (say this without exhaling) Findlay Prep, IMG and Oak Hill Academy , Mayfair and Centennial in California, Prolific Prep and Southern California Academy, also in Cali.

He’s very talented though and a major get for Pitt. Barring something unforeseen, he is certainly going to be a factor.

He also created an acceptable loss: Cashius McNeilly, who played with Federiko at Northern Oklahoma, had committed but bailed after Johnson chose the Panthers. It works out to a win for Pitt. Johnson is the most highly regarded player Capel has recruited for Pitt.

Capel also brings in an intriguing pair of big men, twins Jose and Guillermo Diaz-Graham (we’ve seen it with and without the hyphen). Guillermo is slightly bigger at 7-0/205 while Jorge is 6-11/195.

Guillermo has three point range and a solid offensive game overall. He played for Spain this past summer in the FIBA Europe Challengers tournament, where he averaged 11 ppg, 5.6 boards and 3.0 blocks.

Jorge may not be as far along but he is a solid offensive player and also can go outside. Like his brother, he needs to live in the weight room for awhile.

The final freshman is Javon Stevenson, a walk-on with an interesting background. His father, “Dunkatron” Ron Stevenson, played at Duquesne and, as you might have guessed, was quite a dunker.

We can't explain Capel’s struggles or his rapid turnover. We’ve met him; he was a warm and kind person, someone who commands respect. It’s hard to imagine not liking him, which, no doubt, is part of why he has been such an effective recruiter.

On the other hand, we aren’t in practice with him, much less games, and we don’t what he’s like in those situations. He clearly grew frustrated with Johnson before his departure, for instance, which was certainly understandable, because Johnson had so little common sense on the basketball court. On the other hand, he recruited him and it’s his job to get him to buy in as a player.

It’s hard to believe that his emotions get the best of him in that way. He was brilliant at VCU and at Oklahoma for a time, and at Duke, he had to deal with a very demanding coach and boss in Mike Krzyzewski. Immense pressure is nothing new for Capel.

He’ll face some this season if his team struggles again, but the good news is there’s enough talent to break through. Hugley has already proven himself. Federiko should be a tough defender and the Diaz-Graham brothers are going to contribute. With Sibande, Burton, Elliot, Johnson and Cummings, the backcourt is deep too.

Our question is on the wings. We don’t know how much Jeffress will help but not having him hurts. There’s an obvious opportunity for Hinson to excel, and he did well at Mississippi. Santos won't have to focus on offense and could emerge as a stopper.

We could see a three guard lineup too, with Hugley, Johnson, maybe Hinson and two guards to be named later.

And by the way, a deep backcourt will let Capel defend like hell on the perimeter.

As Lyke said, Capel is a good man who is immensely, well, capable. Pitt has had some bad luck - Covid, injuries, transfers and so on. At some point though, you have to get better. This year is Pitt’s chance to do just that.